Amanda Spielman: Qualified language
Amanda Spielman: Qualified language

Amanda Spielman does not consider herself a pedant, but is a self-confessed hater of unclear or “fuzzy” language.

She doesn’t want to sound like someone who writes to newspapers complaining about the state of modern English and signing off, as she puts it, “Disgusted, from Tunbridge Wells”.

“Of course language has to grow and change,” says Ofqual chair Spielman.

“But in so many areas of real life we have to deal with fuzziness and muddiness of ideas — I have a permanent desire to clean the fuzziness out.”

Talking to Spielman, aged 54, you realise this desire is born of an inquisitive, quick-moving and logic-driven mind that doesn’t have time to be cluttered.

“It’s a really small thing, but I cannot stop myself noticing when they ask me to take my personal belongings from the train — what are my impersonal belongings?” she questions.

And working with education policy, clarity and precision have become a bit of a “personal quest” for the mum-of-two.

Spielman aged eight

Spielman aged eight

“With my responsibilities for education, it’s all about making sure you don’t inadvertently make everything harder for people who have to work in the system,” she says.

“So I am always trying to make sure that things are properly thought through and expressed, so you get the best discussion.

“You can end up not having the right conversations that genuinely get value from people’s knowledge just because you’ve framed a conversation wrongly.”

When she was seven years old, Spielman wanted to be involved in education — as a professor of medieval history.

Mum Olivia, a university professor, and dad Sebastian, a civil servant, had met at Oxford, so “there was always plenty of academic push,” says Spielman.

But dreams of following in her mother’s footsteps faded as she got older.

“I grew out of it, fortunately,” she says.

“I’m not cut out for staying focused on a single issue in quite a solitary way through three or four years of a PhD.

“I like fixing and sorting things, and I like lots of interaction with people, the discussion that breeds human advancement.”

Spielman was born in London but the family moved to Glasgow when she was five before transferring to a Dorset boarding school when she was 10, followed by studying A-levels in London.

Through all the different schools, one thing remained constant — her love of maths.

Spielman on a hilltop above Palmyra, Syria in 1988

Spielman on a hilltop above Palmyra, Syria in 1988

“Mathematics is absolutely fascinating,” she says.

“It’s not something that’s simply a matter of instinct and appreciation — it involves developing a very structural understanding of an immense library of concepts and being able to bring them to bear on problems, and suddenly make things that were previously inexpressible, expressible.”

Inspired, Spielman set out to study maths at Cambridge University, but was disappointed by the experience.

“Cambridge wasn’t very interested in teaching undergraduate mathematicians at that point,” she says.

“So they ran the course in a way that gave the first years as little attention as possible and then seeing who stays the course — and between a quarter and a third of people would change at the end of the first year, which was a terrible waste.”

And, “miserable” because of the teaching, Spielman became another one of the drop-out statistics and, as she began to realise she had “quite a practical bent and liked to fix things”, she instead set her sights on a career in business by transferring to a law degree.

After university, and with an eye on the business world, Spielman trained as a chartered accountant with KPMG — a process which in many ways, can be likened to an apprenticeship, she says.

Spielman at Swindon Railway Workshop Ltd, 1990

Spielman at Swindon Railway Workshop Ltd, 1990

“In my regulatory work, especially stuff about apprenticeships recently, it has been fascinating for me to realise quite how much I’ve been shaped by having been through an apprenticeship-like experience myself in that context,” she says.

And the experience was, she says, much more demanding than academia.

“At university, unless you have formidable levels of self-discipline, it’s quite easy not to work,” she says.

“Whereas in accountancy training, you are working quite hard and absorbing a lot of new stuff, and you were there in the office, with very clear tasks and expectations for the day or the week.”

And it was an atmosphere that Spielman thrived upon.

“Most of my life, if I’ve felt I’m really learning something, I’m happy,” she says.

“I love being exposed to, and getting the hang of, new things.”

In 1993, she became a director at Bridgewater Business Analysis, and it was here she met her now-husband Adam, in what she describes as “one of the bravest bits of matchmaking ever”.

Adam, a friend of Spielman’s business partner, had come into the office to borrow a computer and printer for a job application, and the two fell into conversation.

“A mutual friend of ours, who also worked there, saw us chatting and saw the body language was good,” explains Spielman.

“I was single, and Adam had a girlfriend, but this mutual friend didn’t like the girlfriend, so a week or so later, he told us separately, and completely untruthfully, that each of us had confided in him about really fancying the other.

“Adam asked me out, and one thing led to another.”

The couple moved to America in 1995, where Spielman took up roles at Mercer Management Consulting in Boston and then at finance group Nomura International in New York.

It has been fascinating for me to realise quite how much I’ve been shaped by having been through an apprenticeship-like experience

 

It was while living across the pond, “outside the UK and looking back,” that Spielman began to reconsider her career.

“Words have completely different meanings — for example, for me, ‘liberal’ has always been a good word with nice connotations,” she says.

“In America, liberal is a dirty word with completely different overtones and that led me to a whole process of unpacking the cultural assumptions that underlie the system.

“So in the UK there’s a very strong, and very particular concept of egalitarianism that underlies the whole education system, and has done ever since the war, and there’s very much an all-party consensus on it.

“But that’s not the case everywhere, so different education systems result from rather different cultural assumptions.”

Spielman began to realise she had done her time in the city — and worst of all, she was no longer learning anything, so she sat down to work out what else she was interested in.

“And I realised ever since I was a child I always read everything I could come across about education — it was a lightbulb moment,” she says.

Spielman in a school photograph from Dorset’s Newton Manor School (now private homes), aged 12

So, on her return to London, Spielman took up an “absolutely gripping” master’s degree in comparative education and spent two years as a freelance education consultant.

In 2004, she met one of the trustees of Ark, an international children’s charity set up by a group of hedge fund investors, which was looking to set up an education wing in the form of sponsored academies.

“During my studies, I’d got interested in the education programmes and curricula that were most effective for the most disadvantaged and lower ability children, and wanted to find somewhere I could pursue that interest — and here was Ark,” she says.

The success of Ark Schools, now a chain of 31 schools with 15,000 pupils, thrust Spielman into public debate about education policy — and sparked an interest in how qualifications could be used to “make true opportunities and progress available to everybody”.

When the Ofqual job came up, Spielman grabbed it and came fact-to-face with the world of FE.

“I think your head sort of explodes from the complexity of it, doesn’t it?” she says.

“There are remarkably few people, I think, that truly understand the system in all its complexity, so it’s about finding the right sort of checks and balances.”

And, she says, she’s determined to ensure Ofqual keeps a focus on FE.

“Of the things Ofqual does, I think some of the most significant things that we do, and especially have done in the last year, have been around vocational education and the QCF and so on,” she says.

“But how much coverage does it get compared with every wrinkle on GCSE and A-level? Almost nothing.”

But one thing that will help FE, she says, is of course, clear, un-fuzzy language.

“In the QCF consultation meetings I could really see where a lot of thinking had gone
in to how we express this in the language of the people who work in this area — the technical language that regulatory conditions often have to be couched in to do the job they need to do, but to make sure the conversation was happening at the right level, and expressed in the terms that have that meaning” she says.

“And I was obviously very pleased by that.”

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It’s a personal thing

What’s your favourite book?

It changes every couple of years, but at the moment it would be Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. And my other favourites are Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I love Hilary Mantel, she’s remarkable. The elegance with which she can turn a thought and a phrase is just sensational

From left, Spielman’s daughter Flora, Spielman, her husband Adam and daughter Polly on a family holiday in Egypt

What do you do to switch off from work?

Besides reading? I knit. I knit when I’m walking down the street. I knit on the train. I knit watching television, anywhere. I like complexity. Sometimes it’s in shaping, sometimes patterning, but I don’t turn out big granny sweaters — I like interesting pieces.

I like doing things with my hands. I like cooking, I like baking, and the day job is so much about thinking and so much conceptual stuff as well, and having something that’s practical, constructive and creative provides a lovely balance

What’s your pet hate?

Clumsy language. People not thinking clearly, especially when things need clear thoughts — so allowing things to turn into morasses of fuzzy language

If you could invite anyone, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would it be?

There was a famous ball on the eve of Waterloo, so instead of a dinner party I’d like to go there, to be looking over the shoulder of the Duke of Wellington, to be eavesdropping on all the conversation there

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

A professor of medieval history