'I could have done better but for school'

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Sue Atkins struggled for years with everyday tasks. She could not write a letter because she was unsure about the spelling and grammar.

Nor could she follow simple instructions. She once put a new bag in her vacuum cleaner and then covered the house in dust. When cooking, instead of using recipes she flung all the ingredients in together.

Mrs Atkins, now aged 41 with five children, blames her schooling.

"I was a victim of my education," she said. "I feel that my secondary school failed me. The children in class who did well were favoured by the teachers. Those of us who struggled more were just left to get on with it. We were left to help each other and often got it wrong. I left school with an immense lack of confidence."

Despite being ignored by her teachers, she said she always felt she could do better at school if only she had been given a chance. "I loved words and I tried to write poetry but could never think of the right words."

Her life changed two years ago when she at last plucked up the courage to attend a basic skills course at her local adult education centre.

"I explained to them that I was ever so old and that I didn't want to be rich or famous. I just wanted to be sure about simple things." She went from strength to strength and now teaches other adults who have failed to master basic skills.

Mrs Atkins attended a secondary modern school. She left at 15 to work as a general clerk in a solicitor's office where she answered the telephone and did filing. "At school I didn't even take any exams. Nobody suggested that I should. We were given no encouragement to get qualifications or to think about a career."

Nobody, she said, did anything to counter the culture in school that "if you worked you were a swot or a boffin. If you were a swot you weren't one of the girls for the boys."

Mrs Atkins said: "I remember one teacher who was very impersonal. He called us all by our surnames so that you didn't feel there was anything personal going on between you and the teacher."

Most teachers, she said, had low expectations of the less able pupils. "If you couldn't do it, they made you think it didn't matter.

"The trouble with the school was that they assumed we had learned all we needed to know about reading and writing, spelling and punctuation in our primary schools. In fact, many of us needed to have that knowledge reinforced."

She believes schools have improved but says that some of the young people whom she teaches have suffered because teachers have been too soft on them. "There is not enough discipline and not enough respect for teachers," she said.