Robert Peston

11th January 2013 at 00:00
The BBC's business editor recalls two influential figures who believed in the old-fashioned virtue of knuckling down

Although I liked primary a lot, I consider secondary to be where I spent my formative years. Ruby Galili taught me history and Peter Hudgell taught me English. They were great teachers, but also incredibly enthusiastic about their subjects. They conveyed their love of learning and knowledge and I think that the spirit in which you are taught is almost as important as what you are taught.

Both of them were good lecturers, but they also got across this idea that knowledge and learning matter and application matters - there are no shortcuts. They believed in the old-fashioned virtues of knuckling down and studying.

I don't think there was anything about either of them that was particularly revolutionary. They just had the virtues of the old-fashioned, dedicated teacher for whom teaching was a vocation.

Highgate Wood was a comprehensive created out of a secondary modern (for pupils deemed unsuited to an academic or technical curriculum) and when I arrived I'm not sure that a single pupil had ever gone on to university. It had a pretty challenging intake.

Ruby and Peter were dedicated to helping kids make the most of themselves. I think I was the first pupil who went on to Oxford. I came from a middle-class background and I suspect I'd have done reasonably well wherever I'd gone to school, but this was a school that believed everybody could achieve. Lots of people who would have been lost if they had gone to a secondary modern went to university and built better lives for themselves. It also had a fantastic headmaster, Mr Walters, who ran a very disciplined place.

Out of school, we all misbehaved terribly, but in school people just got on with it. The school rather went downhill some time after I left, when more mixed-ability teaching was introduced and less discipline - no school uniform and things. But Ruby and Peter stuck with it.

Ruby did not have a conventional training. I think she had some kind of teaching certificate and was actually a self-taught historian. But, my goodness, she knew her stuff and was serious about it all.

I was a very pushy, self-confident kid. I could have been slapped down and told to keep quiet, but the reverse was true. They were happy to have an argument with me and encouraged me to explore things, rather than just saying: "You have got to learn this by rote."

Despite the fact that this was a bog-standard comprehensive, as Mr Campbell would say, they took me on in an intellectual sense. They loved knowledge and wanted to debate. I just don't know the extent to which that happens in schools such as mine any more, but it was very important to me. My impression is that there is a bit more of a formulaic approach to teaching than I was lucky enough to experience.

I had a great time at school and - this sounds terribly patronising but it's true - it was the one part of my life where I mixed with people from all sorts of different backgrounds.

There were people from Tottenham, Highgate, Crouch End. There were lots of West Indians, Cypriots, Greeks, Turks. There were middle-class and working-class pupils. It was tremendously mixed and one of the rare times I have not been in a ghetto of similar people. That mattered to me, because it helped me understand more about what life is like for more people.

I am a pretty serious person and I've got quite a strong puritanical work ethic. I think Ruby and Peter played a huge role in influencing who I am today: a serious person who wants to acquire knowledge for its own sake and not just in order to pass exams.

Robert Peston is the founder of Speakers for Schools, a not-for-profit organisation that brings knowledgeable speakers who are leaders in their respective fields into state secondaries and colleges, free of charge. He was speaking to Emma Seith.


Born: London, 1960

Education: Highgate Primary and Highgate Wood Secondary, London; Balliol College, Oxford; Universite Libre de Bruxelles

Career: Journalist; BBC business editor since 2006.

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