Dr Anderson and Miss Senator by Esther Rantzen

6th February 2015 at 00:00
The ChildLine founder remembers the women who taught her the value of ambition, humour and original thinking

Dame Kitty Anderson was headmistress of North London Collegiate School from the 1940s to the mid-1960s. As she had a PhD, we called her Dr Anderson. I arrived in 1947 at the age of 7, having left a school run by a sadistic dragon of a woman whose hobby was reducing small children to tears.

I'll never forget my interview with Dr Anderson. I read a relatively complex piece of prose and then we had a conversation about the cedar trees in the grounds. She was struck by a drawing I'd done, which was of a fairy village with mushroom houses and an elf doctor arriving on the back of a snail. This got me through despite the fact that my mental arithmetic was appalling.

History was Dr Anderson's subject and she taught us about democracy. Ours was a girls' school and she instilled in us that education was a fairly new prize that women must not take for granted. She also taught us that women had to fight very hard for the vote and therefore we must always use it and use it well. And yet I know that she took just as much pride in the fact that we left school being able to cook a decent fruit cake.

She was smiley and friendly and a huge giggler. She didn't like rules so the school didn't have many of them. She didn't like exams so she said we'd take as few of them as possible. I took only five O-levels and then four A-levels in different subjects, as she didn't think you should take the same subject more than once.

I was a lateral thinker and I remember a teacher made us write "A day in the life of a monk". I started each section with a big capital letter that I coloured in like an illuminated manuscript. When the work came back, the teacher had drawn a red line through every one and the only comment was: "Do not waste your time in this foolish manner."

My mother was cross on my behalf but I laughed. I knew Dr Anderson would have liked it, as she appreciated things that were slightly off the wall. So when I came up against the occasional schoolmarm who took a more rigid view and thought I was messing around, it didn't impinge. Everything comes from the top, and as Dr Anderson had a sense of humour and valued originality she encouraged that in us.

Another teacher who had a great influence on me was Caroline Senator, who taught French and took me for Jewish prayers. I remember she had a very loud laugh and sang loudly (and badly) throughout the prayers.

I loved French and that was down to her. We romped through French literature. She wrote "All knowledge is one" on the blackboard and then we were asked to have a look at the Renaissance and what was happening in every single country. It was so difficult. She stretched us.

Miss Senator was my form mistress in my O-level year. At the end of it I wrote her a poem, which they found in her papers after her death. That was very sad. I never saw her again, although I did keep in touch with Dr Anderson and when I got a job at the BBC I used to book her for programmes.

These teachers gave me confidence. The girls in our year were ambitious and I was one of 21 who went to Oxbridge, at a time when it was quite difficult for women to get in. That was a remarkable achievement and it was thanks largely to these two women.

Esther Rantzen was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. She is a supporter of Generation Diary from the Anne Frank Trust UK, a project to build the biggest collective digital diary in the world, written by 13- to 15-year-olds.

That's life!

Esther Rantzen

Born 22 June 1940, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire

Education North London Collegiate School, Little Stanmore, Middlesex; Somerville College, Oxford

Career BBC television presenter, best known for long-running consumer rights show That's Life! Founder of ChildLine, the national helpline for children in distress, and the Silver Line, a helpline for older people. She was appointed Dame in the recent New Year's Honours


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