My parents split up when I was seven, but they didn’t live that far away from each other, and they wanted my sister and me to go to a school that was easy to get to for both of them, and Cator Park School for Girls in Bromley happened to be in the middle.
Where I was growing up there was a lot of poverty, and I saw the impact of cuts on both my primary and secondary schools. Also, my mum was a special-needs teacher and there was a real cutback in the money available for specialist teaching, so there wasn’t the support for children who really needed it.
My school had real challenges: it needed a new building – our sixth form was a couple of prefab huts in the playground, and the library had to be turned into a classroom, so in study periods there was nowhere to go – and there were never enough text books to go around. I knew a lot of people who might have done better if the school had been properly resourced, but I realised the government just didn’t care.
As a result I began to be interested in politics very early on. When there was a general election, people were talking about how their parents were going to vote, but I didn’t know the difference between Labour or Conservative and felt really embarrassed not to be able to join in that conversation – a bit like when people talk to me about football now. My dad turned on the television and said, “That is Neil Kinnock: he is who we vote for.” And from then on I strongly identified as a Labour person because that’s what my dad was. I am quite dutiful.
All through school I worked hard and was conscientious. I like to do well at things and I wanted to get top marks. And also I always wanted to please my teachers. Because my mum and dad were primary school teachers I respected other teachers and wanted them to like me and have a good impression of me. I do care about what people think about me.
But looking back I really was such a swot. One year, we were given this optional science project to do in the holidays; at the same time my mum said she’d take us to this new shopping centre in Bromley, but I told her I’d rather stay at home and get the project done. And then when I was 14 a load of the teachers and parents boycotted the Sats because they didn’t agree with the testing regime. I boycotted them too as I was a bit of a leftie by then – but I did them in my free time because I wanted to know if I was good enough. So for a week I spent my lunchtimes sitting in a classroom on my own doing these exams, to find out what I would have got if I’d really done them. The school allowed me to be a bit eccentric.
There’s no doubt the teachers really went out of their way for me. I was good at maths: I like it because it’s clear cut, there’s just a right or a wrong answer – it’s not like politics! I was the only one in my year who wanted to do further maths A-level, and they let me do it by myself. They didn’t have to, I’m sure it wasn’t a good use of their money or resources, but they always gave me a lot.
I had two really good maths teachers. Miss Endean made the subject interesting and relevant. She really encouraged me and gave me extra work, and I like extra work. There was also a teacher called Mr Keane. I bumped into him last weekend at a chess competition that I’d taken my children to. It was the first time I’d seen him since I was 18, and I told him what a difference he’d made to me, which I’d never told him at school.
I played chess quite well, and at weekends I played in tournaments at a chess club. Everyone there went to posh schools and I knew their lives were very different from mine. It frustrated me coming across those people – the inequality of having parents who were better connected than mine and had money. I remember thinking it is not right that due to their parents income and wealth they were able to have a better education where they got access to smaller class sizes and all kinds of extra resources. But it gave me the resolve to do well. I wanted to get on in life, and I knew it wasn’t just about doing well at my school: I had to do well compared to them.
At one point people at chess club began discussing which Oxford college they were going to apply to. At first I had no idea what they were talking about, but I was listening. Going to university wasn’t normal at my school: very few girls had parents who had been to university, and the majority didn’t even stay on for A-levels; it just wasn’t what was expected. But anyway I summoned up my nerve and I telephoned one of the Oxford colleges, Christ Church. “Me and a friend would like to come to your open day,” I started, rather tremulously. And the admissions lady responded by correcting me: “My friend and I,” she said emphatically. Did she not know how difficult it had been to make that phone call? I had nobody else to make that call for me, please try and make me feel like I might be welcome there! So anyway I didn’t apply to Christ Church, I applied for New College because they didn’t correct my grammar on the phone.
I came into politics because of my experiences at school. The last Labour government did a huge amount in rebuilding schools and reducing class sizes and helping those who needed extra support. But I feel we’re slipping back to those days, like it was in the 1980s and 1990s when I was in school: class sizes of 35, plus many kids now don’t get music or sports at their schools, and yet again it means that kids from less affluent backgrounds won’t have the same start in life as people with money.
Not long after I was elected as an MP I went back to Cator Park because I’d been invited to present the prizes at sports day. I felt quite emotional because the school had given me so much. They’d been kind and supportive and they were proud of me as well, and thinking over all these things, I began to well up. Luckily someone’s mobile phone suddenly peeled out with some ridiculous ring tone, which made everyone laugh and I was able to pull myself together.
Cator Park is quite different now from my days there – it’s an academy now, for one thing. They’ve got a great new library – I wish we could have had that – and the science building was rebuilt and refurbished (under the Labour government). It has changed the whole environment, and the school is doing really well.
While the school had its challenges when I was there, because I worked hard the teachers looked out for me, and they gave me everything I needed to get on. I am so very grateful for what that school gave me, they really believed in me and encouraged me. So, thank you, Cator Park: I owe you a lot.