Gervase Phinn: I got a cracking string of O-levels

An education in the life of the author, public speaker and former school inspector


Gervase Phinn, 61, has been called the "James Herriot of education". Having taught for 14 years before becoming an educational adviser and inspector, he is the author of 49 books, and his bestselling novels include 'The Other Side of the Dale'. 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Stars' and the DVD 'Gervase Phinn – Live Again – A School Inspector Calls' are out now. His touring Christmas Show is at the Beck Theatre, Hayes, on 17 December

I was frightened when I went for my first day at Broom Valley Infants in Rotherham, a "council-house school" in the middle of a big estate. Miss Greenhalgh, who smiled, had long hair like Rapunzel, and smelt of flowers and soap, read us The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She stopped at the point where Mr McGregor is coming up the path to get Peter. The following day, I couldn't wait to go to school to hear the rest of the story. The school's headmistress, Miss Wilkinson, had the shining eyes of a great teacher.

I failed the 11-plus. I remember the feeling of devastation when I got the letter. But, in a sense, it was the making of me, as it made me very determined. I was a big fish in a small pond when I went to a cracking secondary modern, South Grove, the first in Rotherham to do O-levels. I acquired a deep knowledge of history from Mr Firth. The school flagpole was outside his classroom and he would hoist the flag on Trafalgar Day and fly it at half-mast for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. It brought history to life: "What's the flag up for today, sir?" For the last lesson before the O-level exam, a pupil had hauled up a bra and cut the rope.

I got a cracking string of O-levels, with distinctions in English and maths. Kenneth Pike was a brilliant English teacher: of the 27 who took the O-level, 22 got it. I was going to be a trainee accountant, but Mr Williams, the headmaster, said, "You must do A-levels at the High School".

The English teacher at Oakwood Boys High School was ill, so we did the A-level at Oakwood Girls. Miss Wainwright was an inspiration; she lifted Shakespeare from the page. When she handed me back my first essay, she said, "You've come up from the secondary modern?" "Yes." "This is the best essay of the lot. I look forward to you getting an A at A-level."

I got an A in English, a B in geography and a C in history.

I went to Leeds University to do English and education. My tutor, Dr Raymond Cowell, an expert on Yeats, asked me what I wanted to do. I pointed to a Penguin book on his desk and said, "My aim is to have my name on a little book with a penguin on it." (I've now got my name on eight little books with penguins on them!) He told me to read as much as possible and keep a notebook to record quotations, observations, anecdotes and memories: the best advice for a budding writer.

I got a good 2:1. I missed a First by two marks; I think I mucked up the viva. I did a three-year Masters in English and drama at Sheffield University. It was part-time as I was teaching by then. After that I did an advanced diploma in language development at Sheffield Poly, and finally, working by myself at home, an English Speaking Board diploma in speech development. (I'm also very proud to have been awarded four honorary doctorates later.)

After 14 years' teaching, I became an education adviser and then a school inspector. I went back to Broom Valley Infants as an inspector and Miss Greenhalgh, now Mrs Ross, said, "I taught you to read and here you are, checking whether I do it properly! You were a delight to teach. You've done very well, because you never were on the top table". Last year, I went to see Miss Wilkinson, who was 102. "Hello, Gervase," she said. "Stand up properly!"

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