I was flicking through Twitter this afternoon and came across a tweet from Jeremy Corbyn, which he posted on International Teachers Day, yesterday…
This interview with Ian Wright was recorded as part of a TV programme in 2014. It’s incredibly powerful, and I suspect everyone who has watched it has then thought back to their schooldays and the teachers that inspired them. I think it’s true to say that Ian Wright wouldn’t have become who he did, and has, without the intervention of his teacher Mr Pigden. He identified something in Ian that no one else had done and he went that extra mile to bring it out. Imagine how proud he must have felt when he saw what Ian achieved in his hugely successful career. I mean, there aren’t many people who can say they’ve played 22 times for West Ham!
Ashdon County Primary School.
I started my school life at Ashdon County Primary School, near Saffron Walden in Essex. It had around 100 pupils, aged between 5 and 11, along with four teachers. There were four classes. At five my teacher was Mrs (Dorothy) Porter. After two years I moved up to Mrs Homewood’s class. She was another Dorothy. Both were in their forties or fifties and both were incredibly kind. I remember they instilled in us a love of nature, and once or twice a week we’d go on nature walks around the village. Yes, we learned to read and write, but they both knew that education was far more than just about learning times tables and how to spell. The other two teachers, who took the older classes were married to each other. Mr and Mrs Kemp lived on the school premises at one point, until they then had their own children and bought a house in Saffron Walden. Arthur and Norrie Kemp were incredibly special people. They were devoted to their children and would do anything to help them get a leg up in life. He was a strict disciplinarian and she always had a twinkle in her eye.
Me (left) at the end of year prize-giving at Ashdon School with Hamish Low, Ashdon vicar Walter Lane, and Arthur Kemp in the background.
In each of our classes we were ranked at the end of the year. It must have been soul destroying for those who appeared in the bottom places, but for me it was too. Every year I would finish second in the class. Not bad in a class of more than 30. But every year Eve Marshall would finish first. The Kemps would use this to make me strive to beat her, but each year it was my appalling handwriting that would hold me back.
Eve Marshall (left), Paula Sizer, me and a boy I can’t remember, being conducted on the recorder by Norrie Kemp
The Kemps were both devout quakers. When Arthur Kemp died in the 1980s I went to his memorial service at the Quakers’ Meeting Room in Saffron Walden High Street. We all say in a circle in silence and then from time to time someone would stand up and give a personal memory. I don’t recall if there was anyone else there who he had taught at Ashdon, but eventually I summoned up the courage to say something. I remember relating what an impact he and Norrie had had on my life, and getting a little emotional. Norrie died about 15 years later and both my parents and I stayed in touch with her and exchanged Christmas cards. I wonder if the two of them realised how important they were to the hundreds of children who they educated. I do hope so.
From time to time when I do a phone-in on education on my radio show I remind my audience that teaching is not only a profession, it’s a vocation. No one does it for the money. While teachers’ pay has improved over the years it’s nowhere near where it should be or deserves to be. Back in the 1970s teachers had few teaching aids. No computers, no iPads, no video screens. Books seemed a luxury in some lessons. Calculators made an appearance in the middle of the decade and I remember how proud I was of my Texas Instruments calculator. I never did get to grips with slide rules.
An aerial view of Saffron Walden Technical and Modern School in the mid 1950s. I hadn’t changed much when I arrived in 1973. It’s very different now…
In September 1973 I moved up to Saffron County High School. I’d taken the Eleven Plus to get into Newport Grammar School, but failed it. All I can remember is that we were constantly being tested on this that or the other and that a group of us had had enough of it, so we decided to flunk the next one, without realising that it was the Eleven Plus. In the end I was very lucky because I still believe I got a better education at the County High than I necessarily would have at Newport. My parents also then made me sit entrance exams for several private schools in Cambridge. I passed them all but refused to go on the basis that I could not understand why I should go to a different school to all my friends.
Saffron Walden County High today…
The standout teacher from my first three years at ‘Big School’ was Eric Swan, head of Mathematics. He really was very old school and didn’t brook any playing up in class. If he caught you talking, he’d hurl a blackboard rubber at you. He shouted and screamed. We were all very afraid of him, but he was a bloody good teacher. I was never very good at maths but he knew I was trying, and for him, that was the main thing. He was a master of sarcasm in the way that we normally associate with police officers. He was a keen sportsman and loved Spurs. The best thing he ever did for me was to encourage me to move down a set for my ‘O’ Level years, as he knew I’d find it difficult to keep up. So I spent two years with a much younger maths teacher called David Kuyper. Instead of being among the worst in the class, I suddenly became one of the best. He gave me the confidence I needed and had the knack of explaining things in language I could understand. It was down to him that I scraped a ‘C’ in the Maths ‘O’ Level.
Joe Findlay was an Ex RAF pilot who had had a good war. He taught me English for my first two years at the County High. He was one of many ex-servicemen who would enter the teaching profession. I was lucky to have him teach me for his last two years before retirement. He was a kind man who had a fantastic sense of humour. I was always someone who enjoyed books, but he enabled me to appreciate a different kind of literature. No more Enid Blyton and ‘The Secret of Spiggy Holes’, more Richard Adams and ‘Watership Down’, a book which had only been published a couple of years before. It’s still one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Joyce De’Ath was another English teacher who went that extra mile for me. She was also head of the Sixth Form. She really encouraged my interest in politics and public speaking.
Bob Crossan and Nigel Wills joined the teaching staff midway through my time at the County High. They were both history teachers and both took me through my History ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels. Both were superb teachers and really pushed those of us who were really interested in the subject. Bob Crossan also ran a Bridge club at lunchtimes - something I bet you didn’t get in many Comprehensive schools around the country! Both of them stayed at the County High for the rest of their careers and only retired fairly recently. I still see them about the town sometimes when I go back.
After our ‘O’ Levels we all had to do an end of year project. Our was to look into local politics. A group of us interviewed the Mayor of Saffron Walden, George Scrivenor. From left to right, Eve Marshall, me, someone I don’t remember, Gavin Mitchell, George Scrivenor and Dominic Bowles.
In the sixth form they were joined in the History department by Steve Earnshaw, who was just out of teacher training college. A proud Yorkshireman, he taught me in my Economics ‘A’ Level course, along with Bob Crossan. It was the first time the school had offered Economics ‘A’ Level. I really wanted to do Politics, but they didn’t do that so I decided that Economics was the next best thing. I hated it. I didn’t realise how mathematical it would be. There were only six of us on the course and I was by far the weakest. But Steve persevered and managed to inspire me to see it through. I don’t know who was the most surprised when I passed and scraped an ‘E’. Steve returned to the North East to teach in Guisborough and we’ve kept in touch. I had a lovely email from him not that long ago and was so touched how much pride he took in what I have done. He and Bob Crossan will never know the influence they had on me.
Up until the end of my fourth year, I had never really excelled at anything. I was a grade B student in most things, but a D is anything remotely scientific. I quite liked French, but we had four different teachers in three years, each of whom seemed to be more useless than their predecessor. At the end of my second year I took a letter home to my parents explaining that each of the three top set classes in my year group were putting 8 students forward to learn German too. Given I had only just got 36% in my end of year exam, I couldn’t quite understand why I was one of the ‘chosen few’. My grandmother was insistent that I should say yes, even though it would mean not being able to do games on a Wednesday afternoon any longer. “You never know what it may lead to,” she said. It became a real fork in the road in my life.
David Lewis, the school’s Head of Languages, became the standout influence in my school life. A sometimes irascible and moody man, he was also inspirational. But my first year of learning German was not a happy one. I just couldn’t get to grips with the grammar. I was one of the worst in the class.
David Lewis was devoted to his job and always went that extra mile. In April 1976 he took thirty of us on a ten day trip to Leningrad and Moscow.
A year later, 60 of us traipsed onto the ferry at Harwich headed for the Hoek of Holland, where we got a train to Cologne and then on to Bad Wildungen, where we were spending three weeks each with a German family. It was on this trip that something snapped in my brain and I became good at German. Before this I was useless at it but in the end of year exams I came top of the class. Lewis initially thought I must have cheated! I’ll never forget saying something in German in a lesson shortly after that and he asked why I had said it that way. rather shamefacedly, I replied that I hadn’t got a clue. “That’s excellent,” he said. “It’s the first sign that you’re being fluent.” He never knew how much that meant to me.
Two years later we returned to Bad Wildungen and stayed with different families. This was the start of a lifelong friendship with the Niessner family. I fell in love with Germany, so much so that I ended up studying it at university and spending a gap year in Bad Wildungen between school and university. Gap years were very rare in those days. I fully intended to be a German teacher. How different my life has turned out!
I had given up French at the end of my third year. At that point I was still going through the pretence that I would go to Agricultural College. To do that I had to take two out of Physics, Biology and Chemistry in my ‘O’ Level options. What a disaster that proved to be since I went on to fail Biology with a ‘D’ and Physics with an embarrassing ‘U’ for Ungraded. I even had extra lessons, but to no avail!
When it became clear to me that German was the subject I most enjoyed, and wanted to use as the basis of a teaching career, it was decided that I should take a fourth ‘A’ Level in French even though I hadn’t done the ‘O’ Level. Just to demonstrate David Lewis’s dedication he offered me private tuition during the summer holidays. So off I’d trot, twice a week, to his house to try to brush up my French to get to a standard where I could have a hope of coping with the ‘A’ Level course. He did it out of dedication. No money changed hands. What a man. In the end, I gave up the French ‘A’ Level course after about six weeks. I just couldn’t cope with the literature. I doubt whether I’d have understood Jean-Paul Sartre in English, let alone French. So I then moved down to the ‘O’ Level course, which I completed in one year rather than two. My sister Tracey was in the same class. It was a great source of annoyance to me that in every test, she’d get a slightly higher mark than me. Still, I did get a ‘B’, which wasn’t bad in one year. She got an ‘A’, but took two years!
But the fact of the matter is, if David Lewis hadn’t inspired me to progress with my German, I wouldn’t be doing what I am today. I wouldn’t have studied German at UEA in Norwich, I wouldn’t have met the man who went on to be the MP for Norwich North, Patrick Thompson, I wouldn’t have then worked in the House of Commons or got a job with the British Ports Association, or then went on to leave a lobbying company I had founded to open Politico’s Bookstore, which gave me the opportunity to enter political punditry, which opened the way for me to join LBC. Forks in the road, eh?
There’s no way I can properly express my appreciation to any of the teachers I have talked about above. It all seems rather inadequate. I just hope some of them have been able to follow what I have done over the 38 years since I left Saffron Walden County High and thought, well, the boy Dale hasn’t done too badly. And that’s down to them.
My niece and Goddaughter, Zoe, is now in her third year at the County High. From what I hear, she’s getting a great education and the school is just as good as it always was. It’s very different now, though. In my day there were 1,300 pupils on the roll. Now I gather it’s 2,200. It’s the most sought after school in the area.