No going back to what might have been

14th January 2000 at 00:00
The woman who could have been our chief inspector of schools looks towards a new future. Geraldine Hackett reports

"I'M NOT a rear-view-mirror person," says Anthea Millett. An alarming statement from a one-time enthusiast of fast cars, but the remark is a neat response to an invitation to contemplate the different world we might now occupy, had Chris Woodhead not narrowly beaten her to the job of chief inspector of schools.

Even as she begins to scale down her working life - she has just completed her five-year contract as chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency and, at 58, does not intend to work full-time - she remains inscrutable about the events that robbed her of education's glittering prize.

The job effectively eluded her three times. She was about to be interviewed to take over as head of the schools' inspectorate when Kenneth Clarke, the then education secretary, decided the service was to be removed from the Department for Education and reformed in the Office for Standards in Education.

Ms Millett lost out to Professor Stewart Sutherland as the first head of OFSTED, but when he departed after 18 months, the civil service panel set up to interview candidates selected two names. Ministers opted for Mr Woodhead.

There is much to admire, she says, in the achievements brought about by the current chief inspector. Perhaps there might have been differences if she had been offered the job. It is clear teachers would not have been berated at such high volume.

"American research shows that for every time you criticise a child, you should praise them four times," she says. She implies that the same ratio could usefully be applied to teachers.

The TTA was not a consolation prize. Ms Millett set it up from scratch and steered it fairly successfully through choppy waters. At the time, the Government was determined to take a tough line with the universities providing teacher training. They were to be inspected, and future funding was to be tied to the quality of their provision.

In return, the universities vilified the agency, uncertain whether Ms Millett was the real cause of their suffering or just carrying out orders.

Five years on, the reforms are in place and the protests from the universities more muted. Much of the content of primary teacher training is prescribed and next year graduates will have to prove they can pass basic tests in English, maths and information technology.

There is antagonism to the tests, but Ms Millett's view is that, if after five tries trainees cannot pass, "then we really have to question whether they should be in teaching".

According to her critics, the TTA has made little impact on the problem of attrcting high calibre graduates into teaching. Others suggest her task has been made more difficult by criticism of teachers from no less an influential figure than the Prime Minister.

"I think we might have to look to more local solutions to the problem of recruitment," she says. By that she means colleges might open sites where there are teacher shortages so that students can live at home. Schools could be offered incentives to take on mature entrants.

The five-year contract she signed has come to a timely end. The agency has survived its review, though with curtailed powers. It will now have to take note of recruitment measures that might be suggested by the new General Teaching Council. And ministers have appointed part-time advisers on teacher training to work within the Department for Education and Employment. The agency will never again be so influential.

A tall, slim woman, Anthea Millett elicits loyalty, rather than devotion, from her colleagues - and the fate of the agency suggests she did not make the mark for which ministers hoped. "She didn't always put the right people in place," says one inside observer.

Still, the former geography teacher has much to be proud of. The only child from an aspiring skilled manual worker family, she attended grammar school in Birmingham and gained a degree at Bedford College, London, before teaching in both independent and state schools.

At 30, she became deputy head of Tile Hill comprehensive in Coventry and five years later joined Her Majesty's Inspectorate.

Before leaving the Inspectorate 13 years later, she drew up the widely-admired framework for school inspection that would allow less expert professionals than HMI to make judgments about schools across the country on a consistent basis. "I didn't do it alone, but the task was to distil 150 years' experience of inspecting schools," she says.

Ms Millett seems content with the way her career has turned out. In the slightly lower-profile job at the TTA, she has been able to enjoy a private life in a way that has been denied to Mr Woodhead.

An intensely discreet person, she sees no reason to talk about her interests outside work. (In Who's Who she lists travel, walking, gardening and DIY.) Her elderly parents have moved south to Salisbury, so she can visit them regularly.

In her new life as a consultant, she plans to do some work for NHS Salisbury Healthcare Trust. And, in February, the governor general of the Cayman Islands has invited her to undertake a three-month review of its education service - which with 23 schools is about the size of a small English local education authority.

Now there will be some beautiful sunsets to walk into.

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