Education: Do they owe it all to their Alma Mater?: Some high-flyers were launched on the path to success by their teachers, others had their wings clipped. Tim Devlin asked famous people what influenced them most at school

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MOST FAMOUS, high-flying people think that school had no influence at all on their careers. Sir Alec Guinness was turned down for a part in his first preparatory school play because it was thought that he had no talent for acting. Sue Townsend, creator of Adrian Mole, had what she calls a 'vindictive midget' of a careers mistress who advised her to become a telephonist.

Those are just two examples from the 1,608 eminent people questioned by Hywel Williams and me in an attempt to find out how important a part school plays in the lives of successful individuals.

We also asked the famous if they had on balance been happy at school, and who had influenced them most there - their contemporaries, headteachers, teachers, a particular member of staff, one or two pupils or their families. We believe that it is the first time that a survey of this sort has been carried out.

We sent out a questionnaire to 3,000 people, and expected perhaps one in ten to reply. However, as Private Eye predicted: 'Important people cannot resist chattering about their Alma Mater.' We received replies from more than half, and most of those agreed to follow-up interviews.

The 3,000 people we selected were drawn mainly from newspaper birthday lists, so it was random - but they turned out to have attended a much wider variety of schools than we had supposed. Although our approach brought in 180 old Etonians, only a further dozen schools had more than 20 names each in the book, and nearly half were educated in the state system.

Careers education may have improved recently, but in the period 1930-80, with which our survey mainly deals, it appears almost universally to have been poor. More than half the respondents (53 per cent) said their schooling had had no effect on their choice of career whatsoever, while on Julia Kaufmann, of Children in Need, it had an adverse effect. She had a pencil case embossed in gold with the motto: 'Be good, sweet child, and let who will be clever.' That convent-school ethos led her to become a nurse rather than a doctor, she said.

By arranging our respondents into career categories, we soon found that where schools were important, they were more likely to influence their pupils to seek careers in education, science or the church (in six or seven cases out of ten) and much less likely to influence them towards the law, business, sport, journalism, art or music.

Anecdotal evidence suggested that certain careers were not acceptable: 'Stunted and stupid: I can't think of anything better,' remarked a Harrow careers master of Sir Mark Prescott when he heard he was thinking of becoming a jockey. John Hurt's headmaster at the Lincoln School tried to put him off acting. When Bill Hagerty, editor of the People, told his headmaster he wanted to go into journalism, the head was scornful and dismissive in front of the whole class at Beal Grammar School, Ilford. Ralph Brown, the sculptor, was told that he was bringing no kudos to Leeds Grammar School by going on to study art.

Despite these clashes of ambition, most of the famous - eight out of ten - were on balance happy at their schools. Some were blissfully happy. Joan Bakewell 'adored' Stockport High School: 'It stretched my mind and filled me with curiosity'. Paeans of praise were poured on the former grammar schools. Teresa Cahill, the opera singer, said of Notre Dame, the south London grammar school: 'I came from a very poor working-class family with no money for books, music or holidays. My secondary education was the key that unlocked the door to everything.'

But for some, school was a non-event. In our book we contrast two different experiences at similar types of grammar school in the mid-Fifties. The film producer David Puttnam said of his time at Minchenden Grammar School, London: 'I was unconscious - I honestly did not think it had anything to do with me. I was merely condemned to spending a certain number of years passing time and avoiding trouble.' While at Northgate Grammar School, lpswich, Trevor Nunn of the Royal Shakespeare Company said that he found the staff 'unusually interested and talented as well as being encouraging'.

In some cases individualism was sparked by the headteacher. The writer Rachel Billington remembers the reverend mother going around More House, the Catholic school in Chelsea, London, pushing girls out of line as they queued up to go to lessons saying: 'You're all sheep. Get out of line.' But the headteacher's influence appeared to be less important than that of the special, individual teacher whom so many remembered.

Only a fifth of our respondents said that the headteacher most influenced them: 42 per cent mentioned a particular teacher instead. Examples abound: the MP Ken Livingstone's education declined into truancy after Philip Hobsbaum - poet, writer and Livingstone's inspirational form master - left Tulse Hill Comprehensive, south London. Michael Croft inspired generations of actors at Alleyn's School, also in south London, including Simon Ward and Julian Glover, before he left to found the National Youth Theatre.

Certainly some teachers were very dedicated. None more so than Jane Henderson, the history teacher at Edmonton County Grammar School who (before the days of photocopiers) laboriously copied out by hand 120 pages of details of all the portraits painted of Elizabeth I from the only known catalogue in the British Library so that the future Sir Roy Strong, the writer and historian, could have a copy. The dedication of the individual teacher with whom a pupil clicks led us to conclude that this school tie, more than anything else, has inspired the famously successful people of


Alan Garner, children's author, Manchester Grammar School

TEACHING methods were based on Plato's methods, on question and provocation. They would issue a ridiculous statement which was wholly plausible and wait for someone to refute it. It was the principle of advocatus diaboli. The school continues to instil the concept of excellence, in the absolute and for its own sake, yet manages to do so by fitting the school to the boy rather than by making the boy conform to the school . . . In my time there was a boy of 15 who really thought he was a train - a steam engine. This boy used to go round with his feet shuffling and his arms outstretched, chuffing along, and to get him into a classroom took several minutes. The staff and several of us boys would have to change the points so he could come in backwards - then the points would have to be changed again and he'd have to be put on a turntable to get him into his desk. No one told him to snap out of it: it was all part of this acceptance thing.

Alice Thomas Ellis, novelist, Bangor County Girls' Grammar

THE mistresses were . . . all very competent. They did not allow you to get away with sloppy grammar, sloppy language, faults of expression, misspelling.

We used the old parsing books, and, although I could never parse then, I never get my grammar wrong now: I learnt it all without ever having to learn how to do it. They were on to everything - using long words, or too many adjectives.

There was structure, discipline, self-discipline and a lot of culture. It was orderly and peaceful; in a way it was rather like heaven, although I didn't see it like that at the time. Now I wish that every child could have such a schooling.

It was wonderful, marvellous, essential to be at a single-sex school. If you are going to compete, you are better off competing with your own sex. The distractions aren't there.

Hugh Montefiore, assistant bishop of Southwark, Rugby

AFTER my conversion (from Judaism) the school found me so religious that I was too hot to handle and I was prepared for confirmation by the Rector of Rugby rather than by the chaplain. I was five years younger than my brothers and I was released at school. I disliked nothing: even fagging was quite fun, with boys breaking their legs as they ran down the stairs. It all initiated me into the idea of community. The school taught me to work hard - I have been a workaholic ever since I read in one half-term report that I was 'careless and slapdash'.

My Christian friends were more important to me than the ethics of public school religion . . . Confirmation in those days was the passing- out parade of the Church of England; it was Christianity as duty rather than as religion. Christianity was then something taken for granted; it is now more participatory, and the Church of England is warmer and in better heart.

Helena Kennedy QC, barrister, Holyrood Senior Secondary School, Glasgow

I WAS the only girl in my year to do Greek. I tend to want to do things that other people don't do, and I know that this was one of the reasons why I chose law. I virtually had private tuition from the classics teacher . . . He took a real interest in me.

The other person who influenced me was my form mistress and namesake, Moira Kennedy. She was a kind of Miss Jean Brodie. She led a glamorous independent life. It became clear to me that to be an educated woman was not the same as being a stuffed shirt. She took us on walking trips in the Highlands, skiing trips in the Cairngorms and sailing. I would never have done those things otherwise.

Sheila Kitzinger, writer, Bishop Fox's Girls' School, Taunton

I LOATHED the petty rules, the exercise of autocratic authority, the destruction of girls' vitality and confidence - compared with the freedom and political and social debate of home. This led me to want to find out about human behaviour, the social pressures on people to conform. It led me to social anthropology.

Miss Lloyd nurtured my love of writing but she also challenged my values. I turned up at school wearing a pacifist badge. Miss Lloyd took me for a brief walk round the hockey field, asked me to explain what I believed, and then announced: 'We must clip your wings, Sheila.' I was never allowed to announce any political beliefs again at school. I felt a sense of burning injustice.

'Old School Ties' by Tim Devlin and Hywel Williams is published by Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 17.99.

(Photograph omitted)