30th April 2004 at 01:00
If someone was talking between lessons or being noisy in a corridor, the whole class would be beaten. It was education within a climate of fear

Portrait by Neil Turner

I was educated at St Mary's College, Liverpool. It was run by the Irish Christian Brothers, who were dedicated to taking the sons of the Catholic working class and making them upwardly mobile. They developed a tyrannical and rigorous approach to learning that got lots of boys through exams and into university, but was rooted in rote learning, with the sanction of corporal punishment hanging over you every moment.

The hallmark of this punishment was what we termed "strapology". Brother Brickley, who taught Latin, was the most effective exponent of the art. He was a well-built, fierce-looking fellow with a sadistic sense of humour. He would drag a boy to the front of the class and lift his black leather strap - which he called Excalibur - high, drooping it over his shoulder, then whipping it down ferociously on the culprit's hand. Some boys were beaten for not being clever enough or for stuttering and stammering in class.

Invariably, failure to answer a question correctly meant the strap. Even bright boys, like me, didn't escape because if someone was talking between lessons or being noisy in a corridor, the whole class would be beaten. It was education within a climate of fear. Luckily, a few members of staff avoided corporal punishment.

My favourite teacher, Mr B B Cooper (known as Norman), was one. He was a lovely man with a sweet nature and a dedication to his subject, mathematics. He was round and cheerful, had a squeaky voice and wore glasses and a suit. He taught us to love maths, explaining the most complex concepts with humour. He also broadened our horizons. He took the Times and every day would talk to us about current affairs. He read aloud from War and Peace and encouraged us to think for ourselves.

It wasn't until I reached his science sixth form that I began to be interested in ideas and knowledge, rather than just learning for exams.

Another influential person was Mr Kelly, a kindly, effervescent man with boundless energy, whose son was in my class. Mr Kelly taught at the prep school and didn't directly teach me, but he plucked me out of the crowd to be president when he started the school's charitable St Vincent de Paul society.

We organised Christmas parties for pensioners and Mr Kelly would stand up on stage and to our amazement, tell dirty jokes. He was a natural comedian and had them all rolling in the aisles. Once I organised a seaside picnic for 100 children, aged between two and 14, from the local orphanage. I enjoyed being in charge and found planning and executing a complex task satisfying. I'd begun my schooldays as a quiet and reserved child, but by the time I reached the sixth form, I was 6ft 2in, confident and outspoken.

Another aspect of the Brothers' middle-class grooming was that we played rugby, rather than football, and were given elocution lessons to eradicate our accents, and classes in politeness. Miss Bushell endeavoured to ensure that we spoke like gentlemen. She was a buxom lady with the posture of a thrush: her bosom sticking forward and her bottom sticking out. I thought I'd lost my accent until I got to Oxford. I only had to open my mouth for people to say: "Oh, you're from Liverpool."

Politeness lessons were the province of the headteacher, Brother Francis, a small, dour man with red hair. He taught us to doff our caps and to stand up for ladies on the bus. He explained how we should eat soup, and the proper use of cutlery. "If in doubt," he advised "just start from the outside and work your way in." I've since been invited to dine at important functions, including state banquets at Buckingham Palace, and whenever I see a table laid with lots of posh cutlery I always remember Brother Francis.

Former director-general of the BBC John Birt was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1944 Born Walton, Liverpool

1952-63 Attends St Mary's College

1963-66 Reads engineering at St Catherine's College, Oxford

1966 Production trainee at Granada Television

1969 Editor World in Action

1972 Producer The Frost Programme

1972-74 Executive producer, Weekend World

1974-77 Head of current affairs, LWT

1981 Director of programmes, LWT

1987 Deputy director-general, BBC

1992 Appointed director-general, BBC

2000-onwards Created life peer (Lord Birt of Liverpool) and appointed strategy adviser to the Prime Minister

2002 Published autobiography, The Harder Path

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