Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Will Hutton, author and former newspaper editor
My teacher was called 'Sexy Nexy'
Thursday 18 June 2009
Will Hutton, 59, was the chief executive of the Work Foundation (formerly the Industrial Society) and is now its executive vice-chairman. He was the economics editor on Newsnight and recently presented two Dispatches programmes on the credit crunch. His third book, The Writing on the Wall, was published in 2007.
The teachers at Bishopton Primary School, Renfrewshire were lovely but the structure of the school was ghastly: the boys' outside toilets stank and things didn't work. There was a terrible thing called "the strap". If someone was naughty, you put your hand out and it was hit three times. My early liberal conscience was stirred: "This is not good!"
I went to my next school, Paisley Grammar, at eight. The Scots boys didn't like the English boys. I was born in Woolwich where my father worked at the Royal Ordnance factory. One English boy, who was rather fat, was chased round the playground by a pack of boys with the aim of beating him up – day in, day out. I like Scotland but there was an underside of Scottish life that was deeply unpleasant, an anti-English, quasi-xenophobia.
The school was terribly traditional and you sat in rows and said your tables by rote. Arithmetic was poorly taught. I sat at the back in a corner and carved my name on the desk.
I left Paisley when we came south and I had two years at Southborough Lane County Primary in Petts Wood, near Bromley, Kent, run by a charismatic headmaster called Mr Godden. He took my mother to one side and said: "Your son is an intelligent boy. He is not in the catchment area for Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar but if he does well in his 11-plus, I will write a letter saying that he is Oxford and Cambridge material."
"Chis and Sid" was a good school and for me it laid the foundations for everything. I met some fantastic teaching staff. Garth Pinkney inspired me about economics; he introduced me to The Economist. When I get to history passages in my writing, I think every time of Jack Burnip and "Nobby Clark", the history teachers, both passionate about the 17th century.
Miss Necks – "Sexy Nexy" – was a good maths teacher. She was rather vain and didn't like to wear glasses. We once attached a fishing line to the board duster and whenever she went for it, we moved it 3ft. This went on for 10 to 15 minutes. We were sent to the headmaster, but it was worth it.
I was 18 months younger than the oldest boys in the fast-track class and generally bottom or near bottom in the class order. My O-levels were Bs, Cs and Ds but I really flourished in the sixth-form. Doing the subjects I loved – geography, history and economics – I often came first. I played rugby in the first team and ran the tennis team.
I got my A-levels and went to Bristol University and got a 2:1 in economics and sociology. The sociology department wanted to give me a first but I hadn't done well enough in Part I economics because I spent my first two years doing zero work. (It was the late Sixties, after all.)
I didn't get interested in journalism until I did an MBA at Insead in Fontainebleau near Paris. As the only English speaker, I was always asked to write the reports of my group projects and the other students, who were Japanese, Belgian, French, Czech and German, said, "You write good English." I said, "Well, I'm English."
Jonathan Story was the professor who introduced me to political economy and insisted I read the classical economists: Ricardo, Adam Smith and Alfred Marshall. So much of economics degrees consists of reading papers by academics on the classic economists, rather than the original texts... Small wonder we're in a financial crisis.
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