My best teacher

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
Miss Tweddle had some strange ideas. She told us the moon didn't really exist - it was just the shadow ofthe sun.

I started school in South Wales in a little primary school in Castleton and I remember my first teacher being elderly, and rather fierce and old-fashioned. There was a rule that you weren't allowed to have an exercise book until your writing got to a certain standard and I was there for a year but never reached the exercise book stage. I never seemed to manage to keep my letters within the lines. My writing is still pretty awful.

Next, I went to St Joseph's convent school in Hertford and the Sisters of Mercy who had a strict approach to discipline. I was well taught, but I was always a bit frightened there. There was one very fierce lay teacher called Miss Tweddle who had some rather strange ideas. For instance, she instilled in us that it was irreligious for people on Earth to think about trying to get to the moon. She told us the moon didn't really exist anyway, it was only the shadow of the sun, and for a quite a long time I believed her.

Sister Fabian, my next teacher, was tough. She would crack down on any misdemeanour fast. There was a lot of learning by rote and pupils were arranged in rows according to their position in class. The better you did, the closer you were to the front, and those who were the least successful and struggling were at the back and labelled failures right from the beginning. I was on the front row, but not in the first three seats. I was about fourth in the row. I was quite naughty. I was one of a group who used to climb over an extremely high fence in the playground to get into the timber yard next door. Eventually, we got caught and were told we would have to stay in at break if we ever did it again.

I enjoyed my time at Ware grammar school for girls. It was a more liberal environment and there was more opportunity to be creative. I played in all the sports teams and acted in school plays. I had a wonderful history teacher called Margaret Troy, who instilled in me a love of history and an interest in political events and social life. She was an excellent communicator and you couldn't help but be fascinated by what she had to say. Sadly, she left to bring up a family when I was about 13. When she became pregnant she wore her Oxford gown to disguise the fact.

I got in touch with her again when I was in the sixth-form doing A-level history, and she tutored me in the couple of months before the exams. When I decided I wanted to read a social science degree it was Margaret and her husband, Jack, who told me I should go to the London School of Economics, which was probably the best piece of educational advice that has ever been given to me.

When I began teaching, I remembered two important things that I had learnt from Margaret: how important it is to give praise, and how important it is to give feedback, and to give it quickly. These things are just as important for children as they are for PhD students.

I learned a lot, too, from my own supervisor at the LSE, Claus Moser, who was enormously supportive and at the same time willing to tell me, in the nicest way, when I had got it wrong. I learned from him how to be a good teacher, and how to improve the quality of my own work. Claus has been a very big influence on me, and continues to be in some ways, and I have kept in touch with him and with Margaret.

My old grammar school has moved now and the old site is a further education college. I've been back once, as minister responsible for post-16 education and training, and found it wonderfully nostalgic to see again the corridors that I ran along ringing the bell between lessons. I was a pupil at Ware in 1956 when we had the 50th anniversary celebrations and I have one of those long school photographs to remind me of my time there.

THE STORY SO FAR

1942 Born in London 1948-53 St Joseph's Convent, Hertford 1953-56 Ware grammar school for girls 1961-64 London School of Economics 1966-75 Lecturer at LSE 1975-78 Adviser in the Cabinet Office 1978-83 Professor at Institute of Education 1983-87 Deputy director of Inner London Education Authority 1987 Created a life peer 1987-97 Master of Birkbeck College 1992 Vice-president of Voluntary Service Overseas 1997-2001 Education minister 2001 Appointed arts minister 2002 Launches creative partnership scheme between schools and the arts

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