Classes across three continents

4th April 1997 at 01:00
My education was very peculiar and patchy. My father was a professor of civil engineering who often changed universities, so we moved a great deal and I attended nine schools in England, Canada, France and Nigeria.

There were some very good and influential teachers along the way, but it was the cumulative effect of my time in different education systems that had the greatest impact on me.

We moved from Cheshire to Nigeria when I was eight. I attended a school for the children of foreigners, where we only had lessons in the morning, which was great.

My parents had put me down for Withington, a direct-grant grammar school in Manchester, and the preparation for its entrance papers meant I was the only child to have homework.

I got into Withington, and it was my parents' intention that I would spend the rest of my schooldays there. But after one year, during which I had a lovely teacher called Mrs Williams, we emigrated to Canada, as my father had got a job in Saskatchewan.

After two years, one in Saskatchewan and one in Calgary, my father thought it would be a good idea for me to learn French, so he found me a place at Notre Dame des Anges, a convent boarding school in Dijon.

I was put on a plane in Calgary, with a suitcase containing all my stuff for the year. At Paris I was met by a friend of a friend of somebody, who drove me from Orly Airport to one of the main railway stations. He put me on a train, and the nuns from the convent met me in Dijon. I was only 11 and it was a pretty horrendous experience.

I'd spent two holidays with a family in Switzerland, so I could already speak French quite fluently. The big problem was that I'd never heard of the metric system, an omission for which I've never forgiven my parents. I can remember looking at the board in my first maths lesson, utterly baffled by the decilitres and hectilitres. But the maths teacher took me through it all, and by the end of the year I was one of the best students.

We slept in a dormitory that had white curtains separating the beds, with the smaller girls in a row down the middle, like in an old-fashioned hospital ward. We had a bath either once a week or once a fortnight, I can't remember which.

I didn't see my parents for the whole year and was terribly homesick. I wrote to them, but you had to leave the envelope unsealed so the sisters could read the letter. You couldn't tell your mother, "I hate Sister So-And-So". It did feel a bit prison-like after Canada, but the other girls were kind. One nun, Sister Marie-Therese, gave me a lot of extra attention.

Back in Calgary, I had to change schools yet again because I was on the matriculation programme honours scheme, which was for the top five per cent of kids and was available only in certain schools. I ended up at William Aberhart High, where I was two years too young in most classes, and three years too young for Latin and French. You grow up fast in those circumstances, but it also leaves you pretty isolated.

During my father's sabbatical year in Zurich, I went back to the convent school. It was 1968, and when the strikes paralysed France the nuns got very frightened, thinking they would be attacked for not joining the protests. They sent us all home and I had a lovely week off with my mother.

I slogged away, passed the French equivalent of O-levels, and finally, at 15, came back to England and went to Leeds Girls' High School, jumping straight to A-levels in English, French and maths.

I had fantastic teachers in Leeds, who made me think for myself for the first time, rather than just memorise information. That experience of independent thought was what enabled me to get into Oxford, where I read psychology and philosophy.

I was bilingual, but my French teacher, Miss Tindle, didn't view me as a threat. She would say: "I'm not sure about this. What do you think, Elizabeth?" That's the mark of a really good teacher. She treated me as an equal, which no other adult had ever done.

My experience of being isolated at schools has given me a lot of resilience. But I still have this feeling of never quite fitting in anywhere, though not in the sense of being a woman in a male-dominated profession.

Notre Dame might have been hard work at the time, with masses of rote learning, but it prepared me perfectly for Hendon Police Training College and my subsequent promotion exams, which involved a huge amount of memorising.

I'm not sure I'd recommend all that moving and catching up, though history has been repeating itself, because my children, who are 11 and 13, have had to change schools whenever I've moved from one police force to another, and they hate it.

Elizabeth Neville, 44, took office this week as chief constable of Wiltshire police, only the second woman in Britain to hold such a senior police rank. She joined the Metropolitan Police in 1973, rising to superintendent with Thames Valley Police by 1988 and becoming deputy chief constable of Northamptonshire in 1994. She holds a doctorate in occupational psychology

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