Mr Yates by Hugh Dennis

4th July 2014 at 01:00
The comic and star of Outnumbered, who is hosting today's TES Schools Awards, owes his career to a brilliant, broad-minded geography teacher

I read geography at the University of Cambridge, and the reason I did so was because of my A-level geography teacher at University College School (UCS) in London. Nigel Yates was a fantastically good teacher who saw far beyond rote learning and placed as much value in the way his students thought as he did in what we knew. He made sure that we went consistently beyond the syllabus and thought about the implications of what we were learning, not just the facts.

I had done well at O-level - straight As - but then I messed up my A-levels, mainly because I had a car and a girlfriend. In those days you could still do the Oxbridge entrance exam; whereas a lot of schools would protect their academic integrity and simply say, "Oh no, you can't do that, it'll look bad on us [if you fail]", UCS and Mr Yates inspired me to give it a go. I remember him telling me that he would make time outside the teaching day to get me to Cambridge. And that's exactly what he did. He taught four of us from 7.30am until school started, then did an hour or so after school. And all four of us got where we wanted to go.

When you become a parent and your kids tell you their view of the world, you're really interested in it. Rather than simply waiting for your turn to tell them the "right" way to think, you listen to them and see if their opinion makes you change your mind. Mr Yates was very much like that. Very open-minded. Incredibly interested.

In his classes, we just sat around discussing things. I don't remember reading through reams and reams of textbooks. He would point us in the direction of books that weren't even on the course. "Read that," he'd say. "It's brilliant." And we did, and it was. Think how valuable that was for getting into university. He was encouraging us to be wider read - and that's so appealing when you're interviewing for places.

UCS was a great school; I honestly loved it. I ended up being the head boy and in most schools you could give your peers a detention in that role. But at UCS - and this will give you an idea of how liberal it was - if you found someone doing something off-kilter, you had to convince them by means of reasoned argument that what they were doing was wrong. No detentions, no discipline. Discussion.

Writer Will Self went to my school for a couple of years, actually. We played rugby together. He was a prop and I was a lock, so I spent a lot of time with my hand between his thighs. I guess that's another story.

Where was I? I think life is random, but it's certainly true that if Mr Yates hadn't done what he did for me at the point when he did, I wouldn't have gone to Cambridge, I wouldn't have joined the Footlights drama club, I wouldn't have met my comedy partner, Steve Punt, and I wouldn't have the career I have now. I'm so grateful to him.

His aim was not to achieve tremendously good A-level results (which he did) or to get pupils into top universities (which he did) but to produce interested and interesting young people.

Hugh Dennis was speaking to Tom Cullen. Dennis is hosting this year's TES Schools Awards, the winners of which are being revealed today at a gala ceremony in central London. Find out more in next week's issue of TES

Comic timing

Hugh Dennis

Born 13 February 1962, Kettering, Northamptonshire

Education University College School, London; University of Cambridge

Career One quarter of the sketch team behind The Mary Whitehouse Experience, one half of comedy duo Punt and Dennis, star of BBC One sitcom Outnumbered - in which he plays a teacher - and panellist on BBC Two's Mock The Week

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