Know when you've been quango-ed;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
THE Government is about to lose two key quango chiefs - a loss that might seem careless, but might more accurately be put down to wilfulness. The Department for Education and Employment does not treat its advisers kindly.

Anthea Millett takes early retirement from the Teacher Training Agency at the end of the year. Nicholas Tate will leave the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority a few months later for Winchester College. I suspect both will depart with feelings of relief, as well as regret.

Millett's thankless task has been to solve a teacher-recruitment crisis in the face of ceaseless attacks on teachers by ministers and others.

This year her agency survived its quinquennial reviews, although predatory hands at the DFEE took over key policy areas, and the new General Teaching Council could take much more.

Nick Tate, meanwhile, has had to revise the national curriculum and its tests, reform exams and merge the disastrous National Council for Vocational Qualifications into his old Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

This year's fracas, when David Blunkett launched an inquiry after allegations that a test had been made easier to push up the pass rate, was especially trying for him. Though the authority was, of course, cleared of such dubious practice, the Education Secretary is plainly irritated if his quangos don't pay attention to political sensitivities.

Can their successors convince both profession and politicians?

Before the lucky candidates are interviewed, perhaps it is time to revisit both the role of educational quangos and their accountability.

All the bodies set up by successive governments to advise on teacher training, the curriculum and assessment have been designed to distance ministers from professional territory. This system also conveniently gives them someone else to blame when things went wrong.

But the more that education ministers have taken control of strategic decisions and management, the less clear the dividing-line between their civil servants and quangos has become, and the sharper the tensions between them.

Now, whenever a new quango is set up, the number of civil servants appointed to interfere with it increases exponentially. This interference is probably far more intrusive than that exercised by any statutory board or chairman, let alone ministers.

You can appreciate why Chris Woodhead relishes the unique independence of the Office for Standards in Education.

But it is also the high visibility, and the political sensitivities attached to teaching and testing, that have made bodies like the TTA and QCA so vulnerable.

By contrast, life at the top of the Further Education Funding Council is less troubled, since both press and public are far too bored by further education to air awkward issues that might embarrass ministers.

FEFC chief executive David Melville can even look forward to the possible expansion of his role, when the proposed new Learning and Skills Council is set up next year.

Meanwhile, the appointment of a new chief executive to the TTA must be imminent, though it can't be an easy bed of nails to fill - or plum job, if you prefer. Even a successor who relishes the political pitfalls and the Whitehall infighting will find it hard to match the professional respect which Ms Millett inspires in teachers and in her own staff. Do you still want to run a quango?

Patricia Rowan is a former editor of The TES

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