Anonymous assistance

17th October 1997 at 01:00
Stephen Dorrell talks to Hilary Wilce

I had a typical independent school education. I went to a small prep school outside Worcester, a school that was very traditional even by the standards of the early 1960s, and, as with all such small schools, the personality of the headteacher had an enormous impact.

This man had a way of encouraging boys to think about the world apart from the modern consumer society. He introduced us to nature and the natural environment, and, while I wouldn't describe myself as a countryman in any sense of the term, in so far as I have an understanding of the countryside I owe it to him. He was also a very religious man, and had a strong sense of what was right and wrong, a strong sense of moral code. His influence stands out in my memory from that time.

From there I went to Uppingham, where two people spring to mind as really good teachers. They are both still alive so, to spare them embarrassment, I won't name them. The first one taught me English literature or, more precisely, drama. This was at O-level, and he taught me to enjoy the use of language and appreciate things about language and the way it works. I don't remember any particular lessons, but I do remember the set texts we did, which were Shakespeare's Henry V and Shaw's Arms and the Man.

He enjoyed taking what were for 15-years-old in that day reasonably challenging texts and making sense of them. I think it was a particular speciality of his to engage with boys at that age.

We had a long, thin classroom with a dais at one end on which we acted; it became something that we positively looked forward to and enjoyed. I wouldn't say the rest of school was drudge, but it was a new experience to look forward to a lesson and, as a result, I remained interested in theatre for the rest of my time in school.

It was because he taught me English that I went on to do A-level, although he didn't teach me then. The others in the English department were, I suspect, brighter men, but they engaged my interest less.

My second good teacher took me for A-level history. He was certainly the brightest man at the school, and although I had always been interested in history, my interest developed at this time into a lasting passion. In fact, when I selected my holiday reading the books were, almost exclusively, about history.

I always think the people who really understand a subject are those who can take the most complex issues and make them accessible. He did that for me with the English Revolution, taking that 20-year period and going through it almost on a month-by-month basis, distilling all the different currents for an impatient 17-year-old to the extent that I can still remember them all to this day, and am still interested if anything new comes out on the subject.

I didn't do history at Oxford, which was a mistake. I was encouraged by my parents to do what was called a useful degree - law. So my teachers at Oxford suffered from the disability of having to teach me law. They were decent men, whose company I enjoyed, but they had to teach me a subject which did not interest or excite me in any way. One of them was Bryan Gould, who later became a Labour MP and then a vice-chancellor at Waikato University, in New Zealand.

A strong moderating influence on me, in my personal life, is my wife, who is half-French and who, when I first met her, said she had always thought that the idea of sending children away to school at eight, as I was, was merely Gallic propaganda against the English. She couldn't believe people actually did it! And it certainly isn't something we would ever want to do with our own children.

My political mentor was Peter Walker, who had forgotten more about politics than most people ever know. He encouraged me in political attitudes and methods, but my political ideas have evolved under a wide range of influences. I don't really understand people who say their whole outlook was shaped by a particular individual, because this hasn't been my experience at all. I've picked up things from different individuals, but there's certainly been no dominant influence in my life.

These three men were the highlights of my education. I think to say the rest were dull would be a bit hard, but there are things that I'm not going to go into that were simply bad. For my own children I would certainly hope for something that is more intellectually stimulating than the environment of Uppingham in the late 1960s. So, no, there aren't any teachers I'd want to give knighthoods to. Although the qualification for a knighthood, as I understand it, is to turn around a failing school, and that's not exactly a phrase you could apply to Uppingham, is it?

Stephen Dorrell is the Conservatives' education spokesman. He was Health Secretary in the last Conservative government

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