My best teacher - Robert Peston

11th June 2010 at 01:00
The BBC business guru was taught to teach himself by a trio of subject enthusiasts

I went to Highgate Primary and then Highgate Wood Comprehensive, based in Crouch End, north London. My parents were opposed to selection in education and had been for years before I went to secondary school. They campaigned for comprehensive education as founders and leading lights in the Campaign for Comprehensive Education. I didn't take the 11-plus exam.

Highgate Wood evolved out of a secondary modern school and yet, for a period in the 1970s, it was hugely successful in giving opportunities to kids from different backgrounds. When I arrived in 1971, no one from the school had ever got into any kind of university or polytechnic (or, at least, that's my memory). When I left, it was the norm for sixth-formers to go on to higher education: a boy in the year above went to King's College, Cambridge and I went to Balliol, Oxford.

Highgate Wood was full of teachers who were effectively self-taught. They were motivated because they wanted to be teachers. In those days, teachers had status within the community, which has been lost over a number of years. These are people who were great teachers not because they had been to Oxford or Cambridge but because they loved their subject and when they weren't teaching, they were reading and writing about it and were just steeped in their subject.

The three teachers who probably had the biggest impact on me were Ruby Galili, who taught history; Peter Hudgell, who taught English; and Gill Baker, who taught maths. I am pretty sure that neither Ruby nor Peter went to university. They were trained at teacher training college. What mattered, however, was that they were genuine enthusiasts for their subjects.

All three were great teachers because they were firmly committed to encouraging the kids at Highgate Wood - who were of all abilities and from every conceivable background - to make the most of themselves. Ruby, Peter and Gill, and other teachers at the school, improved the life prospects of vast numbers of children, a fair number of whom had English as a second language or had a parent who could not speak English.

What I recall as being very important about these teachers was that they encouraged all of us to make a contribution in class, to have a say. But the quality of the education was not dumbed down. We were reading great novels in English and being taught proper academic history from a relatively early age. Gill played a big role in unlocking a love of maths and logical reasoning in me, which shapes how I approach problems to this day. She was not everyone's cup of tea because she was quite dry.

Ruby Galili, with whom I remain in touch, has a withered left hand. She had wanted to teach infants. But when, at the age of 17, she applied to teacher training college, she was put in the secondary modern section, where there was a shortage, with the appalling excuse that they thought the sight of her left hand would inhibit younger children.

These teachers weren't distant. I thought of them at the time as friends and I still think of them that way. That said, they were figures of authority. In class they were Mrs Galili, Mr Hudgell, Miss Baker - or Sir and Miss. They insisted on disciplined work in class - though Ruby was probably a bit softer than the others. The class sizes were big, at least 30, but I don't recall many lessons being undermined by unruly behaviour.

They taught me how to teach myself and, by the fifth year, I probably didn't need school anymore. I was a confident, loquacious student, who loved reading and loved sharing my knowledge in class. I was probably not told enough by the teachers to pipe down.

What I find impressive about Ruby and Peter is that they had been recruited when Highgate Wood was a secondary modern school, a school for those who had failed the 11-plus. But I don't believe you would find many teachers more committed or more skilled than them working at grammar or private schools, either then or now.

My dad was an academic and I came from a middle-class background. So the reality is, I probably would have thrived in more or less any school. But I found Highgate Wood to be a healthy experience.

Robert Peston is the BBC's business editor. His latest book `Who Runs Britain?' is published by Hodder amp; Stoughton. He was talking to Sheryl Simms.

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