Obituary - Kathleen Tattersall, 1942-2013

8th February 2013 at 00:00

Kathleen Tattersall was the director general of exam board AQA during the A-level crisis of 2002. She was also the first chief regulator of Ofqual.

But, for her examiners, she was primarily a colleague who took time out of a busy exam season to ask questions about their families, their health or their hobbies.

Kathleen Tattersall was born in 1942. After graduating from the University of Manchester with a BA, followed by a PGCE and MEd, she worked for eight years in Lancashire schools.

In 1972, she moved into exam administration, taking a job with the Associated Lancashire Schools exam board. She felt that, by setting the standards for exam papers, she would be able to influence more pupils than would pass through her classroom.

Over the next two decades, she progressed through larger exam boards, culminating in the leadership of the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board. Then, in 2000, she led the merger of her own board with another to form AQA, the largest English exam board.

During this time, she proved to have an uncanny knack for seeing through problems and persuading others to view things her way. She had a leader's presence, colleagues said. It did not matter who was nominally in charge: if Ms Tattersall was in the room, everyone looked to her.

But she coupled this with personal warmth. She would always take time out to visit a colleague in hospital, or to offer condolences at a bereavement. Similarly, she had a remarkable memory for the details of other people's lives. On one occasion, a colleague's husband was only a few minutes out of his PhD viva when he received a phone call from Ms Tattersall, ringing to see how it had gone. (Gadgets always fascinated her. She was an early adopter of the mobile phone, just as she was an early owner of the iPod and the iPhone.)

When, in 2002, the scandal over A-level grades broke, Ms-Tattersall was adamant that examiners should be trusted to set standards, and said as much at the parliamentary inquiry.

She retired from AQA in 2003, and was that year appointed OBE for her contributions to education. Retirement was not one of her strengths, however, and in 2008 she became chief regulator of the newly created exams watchdog Ofqual.

Though progress was shaky, Ms Tattersall was renowned for her insistence on fairness and integrity. And her interest in people remained: she would return from visits to schools with detailed accounts of individual pupils who had encountered problems that Ofqual needed to address.

She retired once more in 2010, though once again remained busy. A long-standing Labour Party member, she was a robust critic of government policy. In a letter published in The Guardian last September, she claimed that the English Baccalaureate would "harm a generation of students".

Kathleen Tattersall died of stomach cancer on 23 January. She is survived by her partner, Geraldine Boocock.

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