Miss York was the perfect coach, mentor and protagonist

30th January 2004 at 00:00
She woke me up to the possibilities life had to offer. Portrait by Peter Searle

When I was four I got polio. As I was the baby of a family of five brothers and a sister, it was devastating for my parents. I was in hospital for months and when I recovered I started at the Margaret Beavan open-air day school for the physically handicapped in Liverpool.

In the 1950s, the mentally and physically handicapped weren't integrated into mainstream schools, so I was in a class with kids with all kinds of conditions. It's no criticism of the school, but they didn't have great expectations of the pupils. And had it not been for Charles Strafford, an HMI school inspector, I'm sure my life would have taken a very different course.

I must have been 10 when Charles came into the class and settled down to watch us. After a while he started talking to me and looking at my work. A day or two later I was summoned to see the headmaster, and there was Charles, again asking me questions. Two weeks later I was back, wearing my short trousers and calliper, this time to meet what must have been an educational psychologist.

I was asked a stream of questions, and my answer to one still irritates me to this day. I was asked if various statements were true or false - obviously an IQ test. One was: "Scientists have found a skull in America which they believe is of Christopher Columbus when he was 12." I said, "That's wrong. He didn't go to America when he was 12." Immediately I left the room I realised my mistake and thought I must go back and set the record straight. But I didn't want to go back and interrupt them so I left it until the next day. As I was about to cross the playground to go and knock on the head's door, I realised he'd just think I'd asked my Dad and he'd told me why it really was false.

So because of Charles seeing that I was capable of a lot more than was being asked of me, I was put up a year into Miss York's class. Miss York was a small woman in her forties or early fifties. She was very demanding and passionate and completely uncompromising. She made no concessions and treated me and my fellow classmates like ordinary students. Her job was to get me up to speed so I could sit the 11-plus. Each day she would push me that bit harder, giving me mock papers and raising the bar. Miss York was the perfect coach, mentor and protagonist, and it was like an epiphany for me. She woke me up to the possibilities life had to offer.

She had a great ally in my dad. Life had been hard for us after he had an accident at the factory where he worked. A huge wooden derrick had fallen on him and, aged 45, he became a quadriplegic. He realised that with a calliper on my leg I would never make a living as a manual worker, and he and my mother were uncompromising about my education. He had been a talented footballer when he was young and, had it not been for the polio, I would have tried to become a professional footballer.

Charles became a family friend. He was a wonderful urbane and cultured individual who had been an officer in Normandy during the Second World War.

A connoisseur of fine food and wine, he introduced me to new tastes. I'll never forget going to Charles's house in Stone in Staffordshire in the 1960s when he said, "I've made us a salad." I wondered what I'd done.At school, salad was a form of punishment: limp lettuce, a bit of pork pie, half a boiled egg, salad cream and radishes. But when Charles produced a proper French tossed salad it was like a visit from the future.

Under Miss York's tutelage I became the first person from Margaret Beavan to pass my 11-plus, and I went on to the Liverpool Collegiate school. To me it was a different universe.

Had I not had polio and encountered Charles and Miss York, I'm sure my life would have turned out very differently.

Arts education adviser Sir Ken Robinson was talking to Anna Dewar

The story so far

1950 Born in Liverpool

1955-61 Margaret Beavan school, Liverpool

1961-63 Liverpool Collegiate school

1968-72 BEd at Bretton Hall, Wakefield

1977-1983 Drama specialist at Schools Council; lecturer, writer, consultant

1985-89 Director, National Curriculum Council's Arts in School project

1989-2001 Professor of arts education, University of Warwick, now emeritus

1998-2000 Chairs national advisory committee which publishes All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education

2003 Senior adviser to J Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles, California; knighted for services to the arts

2004 March 11 Delivers City of York annual lecture in association with The TES

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