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Former Ofsted chief Mike Tomlinson is in far from quiet retirement. Suzanne Simmons-Lewis finds a steely resolve be...
Former Ofsted chief Mike Tomlinson is in far from quiet retirement. Suzanne Simmons-Lewis finds a steely resolve beneath a mild exterior

Barely five months after his retirement from the helm of Ofsted, Mike Tomlinson has been thrust into the centre of a national controversy.

When education secretary Estelle Morris needed a safe pair of hands to quell the growing furore over A-level fixing allegations, she turned to Mr Tomlinson, one of the few people with a solid background in education standards who commands universal trust and respect.

Given the task of chairing the inquiry into A-level grading and standards due to report this week, he has throughout kept a steely resolve and fended off allegations that Ms Morris was meddling in his inquiry.

Less than a year ago, Mr Tomlinson was looking forward to a quiet retirement after 10 years at Ofsted, the latter part deputising for the controversial Chris Woodhead, before taking on the chief inspector's job. Mr Woodhead turned the previously semi-anonymous job into the most high-profile in education. He is still reviled by many in the teaching profession.

Mr Tomlinson managed to avoid the controversies of his predecessor, but those who described him as mild and soothing misjudged the impact he had.

His quiet and conciliatory tone and cautious language did much to repair the damage done by Mr Woodhead, winning the respect of his colleagues.

Occasionally he has spoken out. Last year he joined the fray with teaching unions' predictions about dire teacher shortages when the government had said the country was not in a crisis. He has criticised inadequate funding and the poor quality of most school accommodation - issues for which the government, not the teaching profession, is responsible.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for both colleagues and commentators was his decision to take on the troubled education services in Hackney LBC as chairman of the newly formed Learning Trust. The independent non-profit body is charged with turning around education in Hackney's 70 schools. The borough had the ninth worst results in the country for GCSEs, although it is slowly improving.

Not many would do what Mr Tomlinson has done. He had the choice to bow out at the pinnacle of his career, but has chosen to throw his hat into the ring and be subject to criticism from his former colleagues at Ofsted.

One local government associate questioned: 'It's like swapping the Lake District for Kabul. Why would anyone want to do this at the peak of their career?'

But Mr Tomlinson's humble beginnings in Rotherham, south Yorkshire, betray a genuine concern.

He explains: 'Going back to my childhood, everything hinged on the school and the people who were teaching me.

'I wanted to put something back because I recognised myself many years ago in some of those kids - what Hackney represents in terms of levels of deprivation and so on.'

He adds: 'If I can use two days a week to help the kids, parents and the teachers of Hackney have a better deal than they have had, then that is probably the best use of my time at my age than anything else.

'Although,' he smiles, 'I know that sounds very corny.'

He continues: 'One or two colleagues have questioned my sanity but I have no second thoughts, although I admit there are challenges I didn't know existed.'

Mr Tomlinson, a chemistry graduate, worked as a teacher for 12 years before being seconded to ICI as the first schools/industry liaison officer. He joined Her Majesty's Inspectorate in 1978 and has been a senior Ofsted figure since its inception in 1992. He was awarded a CBE in 1997. He became chief inspector in 2000.

He was involved in restoring the education system in Kuwait after the Gulf War and he helped develop a school inspection system in China and Mexico.

But his career could easily have gone in a completely different direction had another of his passions taken off.

A keen footballer, he broke the mould as a child, being selected to play for a professional football club while still in school. He trained with such luminaries as Terry Venables.

'I was pretty good,' he recalls. 'As a schoolboy, I signed as an apprentice with a professional club. In those days it wasn't the done thing. But I really wanted to be a professional footballer with Bournemouth FC.'

Still a football enthusiast, he says: 'My team is Sheffield Wednesday - a burden I bear with David Blunkett, given they are struggling in the first division.'

Although only chief inspector for 16 months,

Mr Tomlinson is satisfied with the initiatives he set in motion. From 2003, pupils in secondary school will be able to make a greater contribution to inspections by giving opinions on their schools through questionnaires.

He says: 'I have gone some way to removing the demon of inspection. The evidence collected has enabled me to present a positive picture of the work of our teachers to help raise the esteem in which they are held.'

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