Teacher said: 'You'll be Prime Minister'

25th April 1997 at 01:00
My best teacher, without doubt, was my mother. She taught me to read and write well before I started school and instilled in me a joy of reading which has never left me.

I was an only child and my mother spent a lot of time with me. She was a speech therapist and had natural teaching skills. My father, who was a company director and accountant, taught me mathematics. So by the time I started at Elm Tree House in Llandaff, Cardiff, at the age of four I had a good grounding in the basics.

Miss Tucker and Miss Caufield were the joint headmistresses and I remember them as very old-fashioned and dressed demurely in long pleated skirts. They were terribly concerned for the youngsters in their care and I felt extremely safe and secure with them.

A year later I went to Norfolk House in Llanishen, South Glamorgan. My best teachers there were Miss Rees, who taught Latin, and Mrs Dark, the headmistress.

Miss Rees impressed me because she really made Latin come alive with her stories about the centurions and life in ancient Rome. With her, Latin became my favourite lesson. She was a striking figure who wore her hair in a bun and had bright red lipstick. As she entered a room her face powder would follow her in a cloud, 10 seconds afterwards.

Mrs Dark, the headmistress, was terribly kind. She was a gentle lady, very encouraging and I remember her saying, "You can do whatever you want to do in life, you just have to work hard."

I think Mrs Dark taught English, but I can't recall much about those early years at school except that we all had our own desks which faced the front and I liked to sit at the back.

I was quite bright when I was 10 and got scholarships to Howells in Llandaff and Monmouth Girls' School and passed Common Entrance to Cheltenham.

I had no problems going away to boarding school. For the first few weeks I was a bit homesick but my mother wrote to me every day and my father at least once a week, and my grandmother also wrote. I was lucky, too, that I was in a very happy school year and I still have a lot of friends from my schooldays.

The teacher who made the most impression on me at Cheltenham was Miss Tredgold, the headmistress for my first two years there. Miss Tredgold knew all her pupils by name - and there were 800 or 900 of us. I remember in my first term that she heard my mother had not been well and singled me out to enquire after her.

I was quite argumentative and I think probably difficult to teach. I remember one of my teachers at Cheltenham, Miss Henbury who taught history, telling me in fun that she thought I'd be the first woman Prime Minister.

Cheltenham, of course, has a reputation for turning out young ladies, and I was a bit of a tomboy. I was consistently in trouble for using a set of stairs I was not supposed to. On my third offence I'd be sent to the headmistress. I wasn't bad, I was just naughty. The things I got into trouble for were minor offences such as talking after lights out or running down the marble corridors.

Once when I'd been sent to Miss Tredgold I was so upset I burst into tears. She got up from behind her desk and said: "Now cheer up, and there's a button missing from your cardigan, have you got it?" I had the button in my pocket and she took out a needle and thread and sewed it back for me which made me feel a lot better.

Miss Tredgold had terrific presence. She moved about the school very quietly and you never knew when she would suddenly appear. She seemed to materialise from nowhere.

Without exception, all the teachers were completely devoted to education and had given their lives to teaching. All the schools I went to were single-sex and independent. I think I had only two male teachers throughout my school life. Everyone of my teachers kept good order and had a great sense of humour. Another thing they had in common was that they were all well over 40 and therefore had tremendous experience. I was a very high-spirited girl but they knew how to deal with me.

I was always involved in everything that was going on, whether it was sport or debating or the school orchestra. I played piano and violin and had my voice professionally trained. I had a fine and loud voice then. I was in the Mikado with the Ledbury Operatic and Choral Society, and in a couple of plays with the boys from Cheltenham Boys' College. Academically, I didn't win lots of prizes. At Norfolk House I'd always been fairly close to the top of the class, but at Cheltenham my reports usually said, "could do better, could try harder".

After two years, Miss Hampshire took over from Miss Tredgold as headmistress and she was another amazing lady. Not long ago I was at a conference and suddenly heard a voice behind me say "Cheryl Gillan, I recognise you by your back view." I went absolutely cold and when I turned round there was Miss Hampshire.

I deeply embarrassed my father once when he telephoned Cheltenham and the school secretary said: "Oh, you must be Cheryl's father."

"How do you know, out of 900 girls?" he asked.

The secretary replied: "We all know Cheryl."

Cheryl Gillan, 45, is parliamentary under secretary of state for education and employment and Conservative candidate for Chesham and Amersham

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