I would occasionally leave school early to play snooker...

24th June 2005 at 01:00
I would occasionally leave school early to play snooker, but I don't think missing the lessons has done me any lasting damage

I was lucky enough to live in a town with a first-class state school. At Llanelli grammar school, discipline was at a premium and teachers were respected. That ethos meant we all learnt the basics. I had many memorable teachers and many very good teachers. But there was one who made a particular impression on me.

He was a man called Bill Rhys and he was the English master; I took English all the way through and he taught me A-level. Bill was terrific, a very tall man with a slight stoop, and he was very forthright. He was wonderfully evocative of the glories of the English language.

We did Pride and Prejudice, we did some Milton, we did a lot of good stuff.

It wasn't any particular lesson or book that made the impression on me; it was the continuing experience of listening to him and learning from him. He was an inspirational figure. He certainly wouldn't hesitate to tell you if you had said something stupid. So it was quite a challenging environment, and none the worse for that.

Bill Rhys was the greatest influence on me, but he would probably start to turn in his grave if I blamed him for some of the things I've done in politics and some of the things I've said. And, despite his influence, my favourite subject was history. One of my abiding regrets is that I didn't read history at university.

Mr Shaw, the first headteacher I had at the grammar school, was also a wonderful man. He became ordained after he retired and was in the church for some time afterwards. He was an exceptional man - he had to be, because he was English and couldn't speak Welsh. I think he undertook to learn Welsh as a condition of his appointment, but I'm not sure he ever did.

I don't remember much about the 11-plus, although I obviously passed it.

One of the great arguments against selection is that it's wrong to separate children at the age of 11, but it wasn't like that in south Wales; you could move from one school to another. So there were boys in the sixth form who had not passed the 11-plus but had transferred to the grammar school at 13.

I'm afraid I would occasionally leave the school grounds at lunchtime for the most nefarious purpose: to play snooker. There was a snooker hall near the school called Jack's. There may have been some occasions when I left early of an afternoon as well. I can't remember ever being caught.

I don't think missing the lessons has done me any lasting damage. Nor has it made me a snooker champion, though Llanelli did produce a world champion, Terry Griffiths.

I also have warm memories of my infant school, which helped me learn an abiding lesson about politics much later on. When I became a barrister I represented the Department of Education in a case before the High Court.

The education secretary at the time was Reg Prentice and he had devised, in principle, a very sensible scheme for encouraging teachers to stay in schools in deprived areas.

But in those days we had the Burnham committee, a body which had representatives from the teacher trade unions and the local authorities.

And it decided to distribute the extra money to other schools rather than those which were most in need of this money.

So I found myself dealing with this case in the High Court, and discovering that one of the schools which was getting these extra payments was the infant school I had gone to. The one thing about schools in Wales is that you don't get high teacher turnover. So I knew from first-hand experience that the school didn't need the "retention" money and could counter the Burnham recommendations.

It was an early lesson for me in how the best intentions of government get subverted by the time they are translated into action.

Michael Howard, Conservative party leader, was talking to Michael Shaw

Portrait by Neil Turner

THE STORY SO FAR

1941 Born Michael Hecht in Llanelli, south Wales

1941s Attends Park Street primary, Llanelli

1947 Father changes his name to Howard

1950s Attends Llanelli grammar school and Peterhouse College, Cambridge

1964 Called to the Bar

1983 Becomes MP for Folkestone and Hythe

1990-93 Employment Secretary then Environment Secretary

1993-97 Becomes Home Secretary. Adopts slogan 'Prison works'. Anne Widdecombe tells Parliament there is 'something of the night' about Howard

1997 Stands for Tory leadership. Loses

2003 Elected unopposed as party leader

2005 Announces intention to stand down after general election defeat

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