I believe education should enable girls as well as boys to do what they want...

18th August 2006 at 01:00
I believe education should enable girls as well as boys to do what they want and not what other people think they should do

My first school was Engayne infant and junior school, in Upminster, Essex, where my mum had been a teacher. I loved it. I'd already got through all the reading scheme books by the time I went, but fortunately the teachers allowed me to choose my own. I also liked the sport, art and music. It was definitely the right sort of environment for me.

My favourite teacher was Miss Hardwick, although by the time she taught my sister she was Mrs Court. She was always cheerful and positive. She used to read Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings and Derbyshire books to the whole class.

She taught me in third year juniors (Year 5); lots of teachers had stopped doing whole class reading by then, but she could pull it off. She always found ways of making us laugh; she had a gift for being humorous and engaging children. Unfortunately, she died young from breast cancer.

Secondary school was a different kettle of fish. I would have been a lot better off going to a middle school because I didn't make the transition well. It just seemed so big. I went to the Coopers' Company and Coborn school, which had six forms of entry. It was a merger between a boys'

foundation school and a school for girls, both of which had moved from Bow in east London.

It was considered a good state school - you had to have an interview and sit a test to get in. But it was very academically focused and I felt they were really only interested in you if you were going to go to university and get very good grades. I did better than everyone thought at O-level, which got me out of a secretarial course - that's what you did if you were a girl and your grades weren't good enough. I took three A-levels in the end: geography, English and religious studies.

There was quite a "lad" atmosphere: if you didn't excel at sport and you weren't academic, you could struggle to find your place. It sounds like I was desperately miserable every day. I wasn't, but I've never been to a school reunion. I did suffer from gender stereotyping a little, but the division was more between the academic and less academic. If you were considered less able you were steered into a certain route. I didn't go to university straight away partly because of my experience. I thought, "If this is what it's going to be like, I've had enough." No one in my family had been to university, so I had no way of knowing it might be different. I ended up doing a secretarial course anyway, but I did go to university later and got a degree, then a Masters.

I had two favourite teachers - both men - who taught me in sixth form.

Stephen Thomas was an English teacher who was irreverent and absolutely caustic in his irony. He was the one teacher I remember being disappointed when I decided not to take up a university place. My other favourite teacher was Graham Draper, who taught geography. He was mad about cricket - I liked him because of that - but he was also entertaining and lively. He was just one of those really good teachers who made a subject come alive.

We didn't do politics at school, but he taught us the economic and social side of geography, which engaged me.

From one point of view, school didn't shape what I've done since at all.

But on the other hand, I feel strongly about the work we do at the Equal Opportunities Commission on gender stereotyping and equality because that relates to my experience. I believe education should enable girls as well as boys to do what they want and not what other people think they should do. We found four out of five girls express interest in non-traditional jobs, yet just 15 per cent are given advice about jobs in a non-traditional sector. The same is true for boys, and it was certainly true for me. It's sad that girls and boys get pigeonholed before their career has started. I was lucky to have a second chance, but not everyone does.

Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission Jenny Watson was talking to Matthew Brown


January 25 1964 Born Dagenham, east London

1969-75 Engayne infant and junior school, Upminster

1975-82 Coopers' Company and Coborn school, Upminster

1982 Havering technical college, secretarial course. Then worked as a secretary

1986-89 BA honours degree in communication studies, Sheffield Hallam University

1991-94 MA Twentieth-century British history (part-time), University of Westminster

1994-2000 Works in the not-for-profit sector, mainly in human rights organisations such as Liberty, Charter88

1997-2001 Chair, Fawcett Society

1999 Commissioner, Equal Opportunities Commission

2000 Deputy chair, EOC

2000-05 Human rights consultancy work

2005 Chair, EOC

2007 EOC to be replaced by a Commission for Equality and Human Rights

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