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Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Arlene Phillips, choreographer and creator of Hot Gossip

'There was no dance at school: you'd play netball'

Arlene Phillips OBE, 67, is a choreographer of West End shows and a judge on So You Think You Can Dance. When she was dropped from Strictly Come Dancing, Harriet Harman denounced the BBC in Parliament for 'ageism'. Arlene formed Hot Gossip, the dancers who featured on The Kenny Everett Television Show, and created the series Britannia High. Yesterday she hosted national VQ Day at London's Royal Horticultural Halls to celebrate the millions of vocational qualifications gained every year.

We were definitely the poor kids at Broughton preparatory school in north Manchester. My uncle paid for us to go. There was always a competition for who could bring the most Quality Street sweets for break, but we couldn't join in because we didn't have any.

It was scary. They were so strict. The teaching was definitely good, but they were the kind of teachers who had a ruler in their hands, and I rather think if you were in a school like that it is hard to feel you belong. I would question the teaching of small children when you have to go around with a bag of books on your back as if you're a turtle.

Some children have an immediate understanding of what teachers are explaining, and some don't. You gradually see the gap between those who can and those who can't. I seem to belong to the first group, because I went on to pass the 11-plus, but I was at the lower end of those who did and I know what it's like in the second group.

After four years, we moved to Didsbury, and at nine I went to Beaver Road Primary School for a couple of years. Then I passed the 11-plus to Manchester Central High School for Girls. We had all passed our scholarship to get there, but I was in the middle-to-lower stream. We were treated as remedial – not so much by the teachers as by the other girls. I had got to the point when I was about to take eight or nine O-levels, and then I got permission to leave school because my mother was very ill. She died within six months. I never went back. Do I regret it now? Of course. A firm education is very important.

I wanted to dance: that's all I wanted to do. I had started at three, going to a little class. I didn't really like it – the teachers were so strict. However, I continued to dance and never really stopped. By the time I was eight or nine, it had become an obsession. When we moved to Didsbury, I went to the Muriel Tweedy School of Dance on Saturdays and after school. This made people at school think I was even odder than I actually was. There was, of course, no dance at school: you would play netball and run!

At the age of 16, I went on the full-time dance course. I loved every minute. The teaching was absolutely spectacular, brilliant – every kind of dance and relentlessly long days. It was a purely vocational training. If you want to dance, that's what you must do: train all day. At 20, I became a teacher there, and at 23 I went to London.

When I formed Hot Gossip, we had three years of total rejection. Producers were going: "They're fantastic to watch, but too sexy for television." Finally the group was going to break up, when the producer of what was to be The Kenny Everett Television Show saw our photograph and said: "Somebody find me Arlene Phillips and Hot Gossip!"