Somewhere in a parallel universe Amanda Spielman is knitting in an important meeting. Clacking needles helps with concentration, says the chair of exam regulator Ofqual, pulling a half-finished cashmere scarf from her handbag and resting it on her folded Brompton bicycle.
“I knit for pleasure,” she says. “It doesn’t require you to wrestle with abstract concepts, and because I’m a fidgety person, I find it very settling. In another universe, I would knit in a lot of meetings as I find it easier to pay attention to what people are saying.”
It seems a whimsical pastime for the 53 year-old, one of the most senior people in exams and qualifications and a senior adviser at Ark, one of the most successful academy chains.
But knitting helps to slow her down, something she’s not that good at.
She was even born in a hurry – popping into existence before her mother made it out their front door on St Mark’s Road, “one of the seedier parts of North Kensington at the time”.
Moving to Glasgow at 5 for her mother’s job (she was a lecturer), she attended a state convent primary, Notre Dame, where her reports mention her whirlishness.
“My mother kept them all – and they say more or less the same thing from start to finish: ‘Amanda is learning to slow down and take life more calmly’.”
It was a happy school, she says. “Everybody enjoyed it. Everybody knew what they were doing and when . . . I have nothing but good memories of my primary school.”
“I have never chased the most popular people, places or jobs”
At 10 she transferred to a small boarding school in Dorset, her mother’s old school. There were 100 girls on roll; just 12 in Spielman’s year and only two (besides her) who went on to university.
Schoolwork was easy and her teachers, worried that she wouldn’t behave, created a unique timetable that allowed her to study science, maths and multiple foreign languages at O-level. To continue at A-level, however, she had to move to a London day school.
“Unfortunately, just as I arrived the husband of the family I came to live with got really ill and almost died with a complicated form of diabetes. It was a family in crisis; they reacted by treating me as one of the children, not wanting me to go out or do anything.”
Not particularly rebellious, Spielman used the time to think and read more, especially about her favourite subject – maths.
“In the sixth form I realised I wanted to study maths at university. It was the combination of this gigantic universe of mathematics, so structured and yet opening so much to explore. It is like a cave; when I looked in, that seemed to be absolutely sparkling with jewels. Maths just glittered like a Christmas tree at me.”
University, however, did not glitter so brightly. Despite gaining a place at Clare College, Cambridge, she found lecturers indifferent to students’ progress. Where her school encouraged an open mind, the lecturers there seemed to wait for people to flounder – and then ignored them.
At the end of her first year she changed to law, and became involved with student politics – standing as an executive on the students’ union as a Liberal.
Her politics was guided by a sense of supporting the underdog. “It is a bit of a tendency. I have never chased the most popular people, places or jobs. I’ve always gone for the thing where I had an itch to find out and do something.”
At the end of university, Spielman’s fascination with patterns, numbers and processes took her into business – first as a merchant banker in the early 80s, later in mergers and acquisitions and finally into strategy consulting in the mid 1990s.
Returning from lunch one day in 1995, she noticed a stranger at the receptionist’s desk.
“He was typing away, so I asked him who he was. He turned out to be a university friend of my business partner, and was typing up his Harvard Business School application because he didn’t have a computer at home. One thing led to another and I agreed to move to America with him three weeks after we met, which was bold!”
They later married and now have two children.
Working in America for two years opened Spielman’s eyes to cultural assumptions of Britain that she’d never encountered before. On her return she continued working in business, but felt the collegiate environment she had
once enjoyed was disappearing and so wondered about a different career.
Feeling too old to study as a teacher, (she was 39), she opted for an MA in comparative education at the Institute of Education. It was a life-changer.
She threw herself into the education world – sitting on committees and supporting voluntary organisations – picking up freelance business work here and there, until one day speaking with a trustee wanting to start a chain of schools.
“Yippee! I thought: this is what I want to do. The early conversations led to the appointment of Lucy [Heller – now Ark’s chief executive] who I already knew and three months later I joined her.”
The chain now has 31 schools and consistently tops charts as one of the most effective school organisations in the country.
Spielman largely stayed in the background – an adviser, not a celebrity name – which is just how she likes it.
In the summer of 2011, however, she applied to take the chair position at Ofqual, a new organisation tasked with regulating qualifications in England and Wales. The following year she found herself caught in the “GCSE fiasco” of 2012 – when results for English GCSE dipped dramatically after the regulator made changes to stop what otherwise would have been a dramatic increase in top grades.
Spielman is adamant that Ofqual did the right thing. “It was an incredibly difficult situation. As so often in life, you can see how a series of things that come together move to provide some unforeseen and difficult consequences. And yet there is no rational way to unpick it.
“It’s very complex; you can never improve fairness for everybody simultaneously. You can never make everything absolutely perfect.”
That she couldn’t fix it obviously pains her. But she is incredibly positive about her work – both with Ark and with Ofqual.
“If you asked me when I was 25 if I would end up as a regulator, I would have looked at you in disbelief and said, “Not on your life!” I wouldn’t have been able to imagine how interesting and satisfying I would find it.”
At the end of our meeting, she zips away quickly, heading to a university advisory committee. In a parallel universe, somewhere, perhaps a primary school teacher really did get her to slow down. So far, no one here has managed it.
IT’S A PERSONAL THING
If you could go back to any period in history, what would it be?
I always thought I was made for Edwardian dresses, very corseted. After two children I don’t quite have it anymore, but I used to be able to do a fabulous cinched waist – and they were quite good on bosoms in those days!
If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be and why?
Otto von Bismarck. The thing in history that most interested me was the unification of Germany and I would love to know more about it. I would love to hear how his grand plan worked and how he went about it
What’s your favourite meal/food?
I’m quoting here from one of the famous 17th-century diarists. Is it John Evelyn? “Duck and green peas and an apricot tart to follow.” I’ve always thought that was the most wonderful description of a meal
Where would you like to go on your next holiday?
My husband is trying to talk me into Japan, but I’m dragging my heels. I want to go walking in the Alps again. Walking, not climbing. It’s something I’ve done three or four times now.