Liverpool Echo, 26 February 2011
"I know how much I owe to the teachers who inspired me, both at primary and secondary school"
She may have gone on to be an eminent barrister, judge and university chancellor - not to mention the wife of the prime minister - but Cherie Blair says that if it hadn’t been for her Liverpool teachers and her strong Catholic family, life could have been very different.
Cherie had been a diligent pupil at St Edmunds and St Thomas primary school in Waterloo until her father, actor Tony Booth, left when she was eight years old.
“Mostly I enjoyed school, but I was really affected when my father left my mother in a very public fashion in 1963,” says Cherie, 56.
“My father was a well-known actor and I was part of a strongly Catholic community where it was considered a scandal to be from a single parent family.
“Other children started taunting me and calling my mother names.
“I became a difficult and rebellious eight- year-old who took to hitting my tormenters in the playground.
“But a perceptive teacher (and my mother and grandmother) came to my rescue. I was given a new challenge by being moved up a year at school and straight into doing my 11 plus a year early.
“From there I went to the grammar school (Seafield Convent Grammar, now part of Sacred Heart Catholic College). So all my energy was suddenly channelled into having to succeed at school and it turned out to be the making of me.
“I know how much I owe to the teachers who inspired me, both at primary and secondary school, and there was a time in my life when without their intervention and the support of my family I too could have gone off the rails.
“I was lucky to have a number of teachers throughout my school life who inspired me by stimulating my imagination and opening my eyes to a world beyond where I was living at the time. I loved history, English, music and drama but I was totally and utterly useless at PE and games.”
After the problems at primary school, Cherie settled down, gaining four As at A level and winning a place at university.
“Apart from the time in year four at primary school, I was on the whole well behaved, and even then my bad behaviour was in the playground more than in the classroom.
“My reports were fine while not spectacular, and one notable report from my year six teacher said ‘Desk space like a rubbish tip but I would settle for a class full of the same!’.
"In secondary school my weakness was time keeping, and in the sixth form I held the record for being late for assembly.
“I suppose I always showed a bit of a rebellious streak, as I chose the LSE (London School of Economics) as my university, knowing the nuns were horrified by my choice, as they regarded it as a hotbed of sin. But most of the time I was well aware I only had one chance to better myself and I didn’t want to let my family down by messing it up.”
She certainly didn’t mess anything up - at LSE she excelled in her law degree and graduated with first class honours.
She later came at the top of her year in the bar exams, while teaching law at the Polytechnic of Central London.
In 1976, while she was studying to become a barrister, she met Tony Blair, pipping him to the post for a coveted pupilage in the prestigious chambers of Derry Irvine.
She’s gone on to become a barrister, judge and found her own chambers, specialising in human rights law. She was the Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, and is a governor of the London School of Economics and the Open University.
So, when Jamie Oliver was looking for a law teacher for his upcoming series Dream School, Cherie was top of his list.
“I’ve always admired the work Jamie Oliver has done, not just as a chef but to help break through the road blocks that litter young people’s lives, so when I was approached to join him at the Dream School, I didn’t hesitate to take on what I knew would be a huge challenge,” says Cherie.
Alongside Professor Robert Winston (science), Dr David Starkey (history), Alastair Campbell (politics), Simon Callow (drama), Rolf Harris (art), Alvin Hall (maths) and Daley Thompson (sport), she devoted her attentions to encouraging 20 young people, with just a handful of qualifications between them, to give education a second chance.
“It’s easy to teach people who want to learn, as I know from my time as a barrister and law lecturer, but it’s quite a different thing to spark an interest in a group of people who want to be somewhere else and who feel alienated by the process of education,” says Cherie.
“You can’t turn around a young person’s life with a couple of classes about human rights and the rule of law, but I hoped that by adding to the cumulative effect of all the teachers I could help show them that the world was full of different directions and opportunities.
“And I hoped that at least some of the young people might see the law and the legal profession in a different light. I was very aware that many people think human rights are something just for ‘bad people’ that have nothing to do with our day to day lives, and I wanted to show them that, on the contrary, human rights are very much about their lives, the choices they had made and how society as a whole balances the rights and responsibilities of both the individual and the state.”
Teaching at the school was a process that Cherie enjoyed.
“It’s always good to get out of your comfort zone and from the time I myself left school I was very aware that teaching well is a real vocation - and one which is much undervalued,” she explains.
“There is a journey through the education system which most of us manage to negotiate successfully, but there are all sorts of moments along that journey where, by taking a wrong turn, young people can find it difficult to get back and then fall further and further behind.
“I certainly don’t think that even the experience of the Dream School is going to be a magic wand for all of the participants but it can be a new start, which, coupled with a lot of hard work, might lead to a better life ahead.”
Jamie’s Dream School, Wednesday, 9pm Ch4
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