My Best Teacher - Peter Duncan

24th July 2009 at 01:00
He doesn't really believe in school or its effectiveness, but this TV star did have faith in one teacher

If I'd had a better education, I guess I'd have had more inspirational teachers. As it was, I went to Hawes Down Secondary Modern in Kent and it was dull compared with my life outside.

My parents were travelling entertainers, moving around seaside resorts such as Scarborough and Blackpool in the summer before moving to Kent for the Christmas pantomime season. The house was always full of performers and acrobats, men dressed as women and circus people - then I'd go to school.

I went to so many different schools around the country but I spent three years at Hawes Down - by far the longest stretch. I was certainly aware that we were the 11-plus failures. People had their future defined by the fact that they went to a secondary modern. I remember most of the leaflets in the careers office were to do with the military. That's where we were expected to go, I suppose.

But there was one teacher who stood out. Mr Marples taught history, although that was never really relevant to his lessons. His dynamic debates and exciting discussions shone out. He managed to bring about a mind shift in us dogged children.

He and I both loved English and reading, the territory of self-expression. He'd ask questions that would really make you think. Things like: "Why is the Queen the Queen?"

He was a kind, tall, very young man, probably in his early twenties back in 1968. He was a bit of a loner I think. I don't think the other teachers were that keen on him - maybe they were jealous of his popularity. It was probably his first job and I doubt he'd have stayed that long.

He used to help out with drama, which I loved. I was cast as Truffaldino in The Servant of Two Masters at school. I remember my dad doing the costumes for that.

There were other teachers I remember from school but none that stood out in the same way as Mr Marples. We had one Welsh teacher called Mr Powell who used to say: "OK boys, heads down" and we'd have a little shut-eye for five minutes in the lesson.

I was physically adventurous when I was young - the Bear Grylls of my day. I used to get a great high from physical risk and it gave me a sense of wellbeing. Then I started to find emotions exciting.

I left school at 15 for my first acting job and I was joyous to get away. I remember the headteacher announcing in assembly that I'd got a job. It was a real achievement at that school.

I'm struck with a raging jealously when I look at my four children's education. Still today, the school system classifies people when they hit 11 years old. It says: "This is what you are, you're not one of the clever ones," and children believe it. It was only when I got older that I dismissed the whole idea of cleverness. It's all a load of tosh really - there are so many other things that you can click with that aren't as quantifiable as tests.

I'm not naive enough to say everyone can be what they want to be, but society should be more open to the idea of trying new things that aren't necessarily academic but are perhaps more productive and fulfilling.

If I had to come down one side or the other, I'd say I don't really believe in school. Or perhaps I just think they need to be recalibrated. I took my kids out of school to make documentaries around the world and they learnt more in those six months than they would have done in three years at school.

I like to think of myself as a free spirit and that children need to be inspired and have a reason to learn. I never really had that at school, apart from my brush with Mr Marples.

Peter Duncan is an actor, ex-`Blue Peter' presenter and documentary maker. He works with Creativity, Culture and Education as an ambassador for the Find Your Talent programme. He was talking to Hannah Frankel.

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