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My School Memory: Five parliamentarians look back on their time in the classroom

My School Memory: Five parliamentarians look back on their time in the classroom

Baroness Deech at school

8 min read

The best years of your life? Or couldn’t wait to get out? School days inevitably bring memories that are evocative and long-lasting. From inspiring teachers and trips to the theatre to a cruel headteacher and boring cadet drills, five parliamentarians look back on their time in the classroom

Baroness Deech, Crossbench peer 

Leaving school – perhaps there is no other ritual in life quite like that one. A sudden leap from childhood to adulthood, from the very well-known into the unknown, from daily ritual to irregularity; from peer companions to all ages, from uniform to fashion, from top-down control to self-control. 

The final chapel service, the singing of the Foundation Hymn (“Praise the Lord for Our Foundation, for the ancient house providing shelter ‘neath her kindly wing”). 

Well, not in my case. On that final day we were allowed to wear our own clothes for the only time in eight years; we appeared in lumpy, often homemade suits and hats, trying to look grown up. 

The headmistress, a woman of the utmost unsuitability for the charge of teenage girls, a woman who had never lived in the real world herself, told those of us who had yet to find a university place – “girls, you may go anywhere you like but not the LSE, a hotbed of radicalism and free love…” (I went, but that’s another story.) 

Then the presentation of a traditional leather-bound leavers’ gilt-edged Bible. But not for me, the only Jewish girl. Years of being made to eat bacon and go to chapel, culminated with: “You won’t want one of these,” she said, “you are a stiff-necked people and we won’t take any more of you”. 

Forty years later, the then headmaster heard my story and sent me an inscribed Bible. It made me weep. 

Jonathan Gullis, Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent North

I was in sixth form and on a rugby and hockey coach trip to South Africa. We arrived at a township near Cape Town where we were scheduled to play. I remember vividly how we had to litter pick the pitch before warming up with our opponents, with items like needles laid upon the field of play. 

Once we warmed up, we felt confident. We had been playing together as a team for more than five years. They had thrown a team together last minute. We thought there was no way we could lose. 

How wrong we were. You didn’t get tackled by one or two, it would be five or six, quickly getting the ball out of our hands. Their lack of obvious game plan meant psychologically they got into our heads, meaning we spent most of the game second guessing what to do and arguing amongst ourselves. We were well and truly defeated.

But it is after the game that sticks with me most. Everyone in the community had contributed some items of food so a big meal could be created to thank us. To see people who had so little give so much really struck home the power of human kindness. 

I remember sitting and listening to the stories of life in the township and realising just how lucky I was, but also how the adversity I faced in life was simply incomparable; but with kindness, resilience hard work and determination, anything was and is possible.

Kim Johnson, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside

I went to an all-girls’ school in south Liverpool from 1971 to 1976, a time well before GCSEs. I loved school – especially my favourite subject, English. When new English teacher Mrs Anderson arrived in 1974, she was inspirational, inspiring a passion for books and reading, and a love for the arts and culture.

Liverpool is famed for its creativity – and not just on the football pitch. We are known around the world for the birth of The Beatles, of course, but other performing arts, too. In May 1974, Mrs Anderson arranged a visit to the Everyman Theatre: my first ever experience of being at a “proper theatre,” rather than a panto at Christmas. 

The theatre is iconic in the city, famous for its political edge, groundbreaking work and ability to churn out world-renowned talented actors, such as Julie Walters, Alison Steadman, Bill Nighy and Stephen Graham, to name a few.  

Notable playwrights emerged from the Everyman, including none other than Willy Russell, who penned the musical John, Paul, George, Ringo ... and Bert. When it premiered at the theatre, I was overjoyed to be one of a small number of girls from my school who experienced the thrill of watching Antony Sher play Ringo and Bernard Hill – who became famous for his “gis a job” character in Boys from the Blackstuff – play John Lennon.

I will forever be grateful to Mrs Anderson. My trip to the Everyman that day started a lifelong passion for the theatre.

Lord Taverne, Liberal Democrat peer
In the summer term one of our worst chores was a compulsory military competition involving house platoons of the Cadet Corps, supervised by cadets at Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy. (This was just after the end of the war.) For several weeks we had to train for an attack on an enemy post, manned by Sandhurst cadets, in the glorious countryside round Hindhead. The most successful attack won a prize, the Arthur Webster Cup. On the great day we were supposed to march off smartly and, when fired on from an unexpected quarter on top of a hill, storm up in an immaculate straight line (so we could be mowed down systematically by the enemy) and capture the hilltop. 

Our house, “Pageites”, was known as a “slack house”, particularly in corps activities, and I was the only one with any rank. I was an acting lance-corporal, the lowest of the low. At the start, I told our platoon we were not going to waste our lovely summer afternoon training for this ridiculous exercise. We would find a nice hidden spot, post a sentry in case the officious master in charge of military training, one Major Morris, came to inspect us, and read or do whatever we liked.

When the day came, I told one of the more capable members of our platoon to trail the house ahead of us to find out where the enemy was. The Sandhurst cadet then arrived and it was our turn to march into battle. Ignoring his instructions, we ran off in a different direction, in a formation about as orderly as a pack of hounds, to the back of the hill where our scout told us the enemy was and started to rush up. The breathless Sandhurst cadet yelled at us to stop: “They won’t know you are coming. Fire a shot to warn them.” 

We duly fired a blank and continued. Before they realised what was happening, the enemy was overwhelmed and we captured the post without a shot fired, except our warning. 

We won the prize. Major Morris could not believe his ears. “Pageites?” he kept shouting, “Pageites?” It was as if Lincoln City had won the FA Cup. I was immediately promoted to sergeant and still possess a pewter mug inscribed “Arthur Webster Cup, Sergeant G. Taverne” (sic), which shows how well known I was in military circles. 

Liz Saville Roberts, Plaid Cymru MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd

I attended Eltham Church of England Primary School at Roper Street in south east London from the age of four till 11 between 1969 and 1975.

I have very little memory of formal class teaching, which speaks volumes for the value of experiential learning. But I greatly remember the kindness of one teacher, Mr Brown, who encouraged me to read stories, most probably when I should have been doing something else. 

He instilled a delight in language and the way words can build a world in which an imagined possibility becomes a concrete reality in the mind. It’s in his classroom too that I remember the whole class learning international folksongs with BBC Radio’s Singing Together. It’s best not to encourage me, but I can still belt out McPherson’s Farewell, Mi Caballo Blanco and more.

In a glass-fronted cabinet, wisely located just outside the teachers’ common room, there was a Cupboard of Interesting Things. Among its contents were a sawfish’s long toothy nose, an inflated puffer fish preserved in varnish and a Brazil nut pod with nuts inside. Two pupils, myself one of them, were once honoured to be charged with dusting the precious contents of the cupboard. The act of being permitted to hold the Things on this rare occasion made them unforgettable.

Fridays were special: we would have fish fingers, chips and peas on London County Council-marked crockery for school dinner because we were an Anglican school. Friday school afternoons finished with makeshift cinema events. The whole school – infants and juniors – sat in tight rows on the floor of the hall and watched films, with the headteacher metamorphosising into a projectionist. 

The school’s hall was in a Victorian building whose windows were too distant to distract children from the serious pursuit of education, but for the duration blackout blinds closed out the light. It was still possible when sat cross-legged on the floor to find dried-up peas under the radiators. The screening would begin with wildlife documentaries, whose anthropomorphism was unquestioned, and finish with a cartoon.

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