My best teacher

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
My teachers liked children. The ones who did not like children were no fun, and very hard to learn from or relate to

My teachers were an eccentric bunch. From the age of eight to 16 I went to the Elmhurst Ballet School, in Camberley, Surrey, a small, specialist establishment with 150 pupils from 8 to 18. It was a girls-only boarding school and our classes were small, usually 14 or 15.

Some teachers I enjoyed, some I didn't! My favourite was probably Miss Holman, who taught English. She was a warm, gentle person who inspired me to take an interest in literature. Rosy-cheeked and rounded, she was a kind face, but never condescending. Miss Holman treated us as young adults.

One incident shows how cruel we could be, even to our favourites. Miss Holman wore a hearing aid. One reading lesson we decided to mouth the words silently rather than responding aloud. We thought it was hilarious when she had to take off her hearing aid and turn it up. I'm glad to say that the trick backfired on us. Miss Holman turned the device up so high that she heard every whisper and noise around the classroom. Eventually she stormed out, declaring that we were too noisy to bear. This was the only time I ever remember her getting angry. As a prefect I was the one who had to go out, apologise and ask if she would please come back to the classroom.

The most effective teacher was Miss Wakelyn. Her geography lessons were so clear. I can remember so much detail: the maps, the information, the skills we were taught. I also recall her extremely long, perfectly painted fingernails and the way she would point with them just before throwing a piece of chalk with her usual deadly aim.

While I was at Elmhurst I was already involved in film and television. There was a complete divide between my film work and school work. There was no reference to this "other world" at school and I was only released for the most important auditions. I remember seeing the dozens of other children auditioning, many from the same few, stage-oriented schools. I was appalled at the level of competition even the. I had never been pushed in that way.

On the whole my teachers were amusing and forthright. They helped us to understand and enjoy life; they liked children. That is the most important thing. The ones who did not like children were no fun, and very hard to learn from or relate to.

Elmhurst was not well-off or glamorous. But we did have inspiration from the emphasis on the arts, particularly ballet and music. As a parent I believe that education is absolutely at the centre of our society. Children must learn about language and other essential skills; they must be taught how to learn. An understanding of music is also fundamental, and I can't believe how little weight it has often been given. These are the things that allow us to be complete people, and if we don't explain them to our children then we are neglecting them cruelly.

I know I was very lucky to go to a school with such small classes. For a short while, aged 14, I attended a comprehensive school in Birmingham, while I was filming the television series The Newcomers. I couldn't believe how different it was. Forty children to a class, graffiti, no respect for the teachers, and very little learning going on at all. You could opt out at the back of the class, get on with your life, letting the lessons slip by almost unnoticed. This made me appreciate Miss Holman and the others all the more.

Jenny Agutter was talking to Jonathan Harrington


1952 Born in Taunton, Somerset. Spends early life touring world with parents who are involved in Armed Forces entertainment

1960 Returns to England

1968 Stars in adaptation of Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children, and Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout

1973 Joins National Theatre. Plays Miranda to Sir John Gielgud's Prospero in The Tempest

1974-81 Heads for Hollywood. Stars in Logan's Run, The Eagle Has Landed, Equus and An American Werewolf in London

1990 Marries. Gives birth to a son, Jonathan

2000 Stars in new production of The Railway Children as the mother. Is writing screenplay about Nesbit's life

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