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When I asked the music teacher if I could join the school choir, she looked at me and said, 'Can you sing?'

One important lesson I learned early on at school was not to count on teachers always to do the right thing. The experience was good to begin with. My first school, Thomas Jones primary in Ladbroke Grove, west London, provided a happy environment and all the children got on together pretty well.

I enjoyed school life although I remember that a production of Samson And Delilah gave me a rude awakening when I was about nine. My best friend, who was black, sang and acted well and wanted to play the part of Delilah, but the headteacher decided to give it to a white kid who couldn't do either.

My friend was told, "Whoever heard of a black Delilah?" I remember being surprised and shocked. It seemed so unfair.

In primary school, my favourite subject was English, and I liked Mr Abbott.

He gave us word games that were great fun, and the winner always got a bar of chocolate. I won a lot as I was very keen on chocolate at the time.

When I got to my secondary school, Hammersmith county girls' school, I realised how small I really was - both in terms of my stature and my significance in the overall scheme of things. It was then that I decided my size would not stop me from doing anything I wanted to do, and I began to recognise the forcefulness of my personality. There were other girls who looked like me and behaved liked me, and we were all bright and determined.

I had two best teachers at Hammersmith county: Miss Levy and Miss Douglas, who taught classical studies and English respectively, and both were full of passion and drama. My favourite Shakespeare play was The Taming of the Shrew, although I didn't put myself forward to perform in a school production.

I particularly enjoyed studying Great Expectations with Miss Douglas. As I've got older all that I learned from that book still holds good. Life is never what it seems, and even when all the clues are staring you in the face, it takes a while for the penny to drop. It can be a painful process.

Music didn't feature very strongly in my school years. There was a group of black girls who wanted to form a band and have instrument lessons after school, but they didn't get anywhere with their request. Looking back, I feel they should have been encouraged more. When I asked the music teacher if I could join the school choir, she looked at me and said "Can you sing?"

Her response dampened my enthusiasm and I never did sing in the choir.

As far as I'm concerned, the black children didn't get as much attention as the white pupils. We all started off bright and keen, but by the age of 14 - when it really mattered - we had become despondent. The academic promise had been knocked out of us.

After my O-levels I took A-levels in economics and French, but failed both.

Instead of resitting, I decided to try to get a foot on the music industry ladder and was focused on what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to go.

Gospel and reggae provided the soundtrack to my school years and are ingrained in all I do. Although M People still exists, I am concentrating on solo work because the time seems right for me to express myself as an individual. I'm off to Los Angeles to work on material for my next solo album, which should be released by the end of the year. I'm also looking forward to performing some UK live dates next month. I'll be covering songs from artists who are close to my heart such as Gladys Knight, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday.

I have a passion for what I do, much like Miss Douglas when she taught us Great Expectations.

Singer Heather Small was talking to Karen Faux


1969 Born in west London

1974 Thomas Jones primary school, Ladbroke Grove

1980 Hammersmith county girls' school

1991 Meets DJ Mike Pickering at Manchester's Hacienda club; joins M People

1992 Releases first album, Northern Soul, on BMG's Deconstruction label

1993 M People's second album, Elegant Slumming, produces hit singles "Moving On Up" and "One Night in Heaven"

1994 Third album, Bizarre Fruit, stays in UK charts for two and a half years; MPeople win annual Mercury Music prize

2000 Releases solo debut album, Proud

2003 Solo live dates in June; new album scheduled for release later this year

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