Jacqui Smith

24th June 2011 at 01:00
The former Home Secretary has fond memories of a don who went the extra mile

If I had been a year older, I probably would have gone to a girls' grammar in Worcester rather than Dyson Perrins, a co-ed secondary modern turned comprehensive in my home town of Malvern. For 1974, the year when I moved up to "big" school, saw the end of the 11-plus in Worcestershire and the introduction of comprehensive education.

The school is named after its benefactor, Charles William Dyson Perrins, a philanthropist whose grandfather had co- originated the secret Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce recipe. Yet despite such entrepreneurial connections, it had comparatively low expectations of its pupils. I was the first to go to Oxford, where I came across a truly inspirational teacher.

That is not to say teaching was bad at Dyson Perrins: but it failed to nurture the academic ambitions of pupils like me. It was true then - and is still true now - that some schools don't provide enough support to pupils wanting to try for top universities.

My dad was a middle-school head and my mother taught locally once my sisters and I were older, so education was the touchstone of our family. As socialists, my parents believed in the comprehensive system and chose Dyson Perrins - a Church of England school - because of its caring ethos, personified in its head, Mr Bormond.

Neither of them is religious but they saw the benefits of the right Christian ethos in a school. Mr Bormond was the best sort of caring head - quite old and low-key, but gentle and kind. It was something for which I was grateful in a period when I was anxious; although I loved school, I worried about my academic success.

I did well in tests and remember a girl in the lunch queue complaining it was unfair and I should give someone else a chance. My socialist background had instilled in me values of equality and fairness which made me uncomfortable about being challenged in this way. Mr Bormond was sympathetic and supportive and eventually I realised I couldn't fail to do my best just because others weren't doing as well.

In 1976, Mr Bormond retired and a new head, Bill Lucas, swept in - larger than life, full of enthusiasm. We called him "Batman" because he would swoop along the corridors wearing his academic gown.

Many pupils thought he was "a bit weird". As a 13-year-old, I would never have challenged his methods but I felt his style was old-fashioned. I am more sympathetic now I realise that he was trying to raise expectations, and as a classicist he introduced Latin, which I took for a couple of terms. I was very into languages.

Unfortunately, his academic expectations didn't filter down to all the staff who, until then, hadn't experienced many pupils wanting to go to university. When I wanted to apply for Oxford, it was my father who researched the entrance requirements and helped me prepare.

He identified Hertford College which at the time not only had the highest proportion of state-school pupils but also among the best academic results. I applied to read philosophy, politics and economics and the entrance process included the possibility of an unconditional offer through interview.

On the panel was economics fellow and tutor Roger Van Noorden, whom I subsequently realised was so dedicated to developing his students that even at interview he led me through my knowledge and understanding rather than pressurising with questions to catch me out. I was unsuccessful at interview and had to take the entrance exam, but despite this remember coming away feeling I had learnt something just from being there.

Roger Van Noorden would always go that extra mile for his students and held Saturday morning classes for students like me without A-level maths. He would personally wake for class those who'd overslept after a heavy night.

I am now an honorary fellow at Hertford College and last year was seated next to him at the fellows' dinner. Even in conversation at High Table, he still drew me out as he had done in tutorials - gently challenging my explanation of the Government's approach to the global financial crisis. Three weeks later, he suddenly became ill and died. A massive loss. I shall miss him and he will remain a reminder to me that universities need to value high-quality and caring teaching as well as research.

Jacqui Smith was talking to Sara Parker

Personal profile

Born: Malvern, Worcestershire, 1962

Education: Dyson Perrins, Malvern; Hertford College, Oxford

Career: Elected Labour MP for Redditch at the 1997 general election; appointed Schools Minister, 2005; Government Chief Whip, 2006; became Home Secretary, 2007.

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