School memories: BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan (Parliament Hill, Hampstead)
10:45 02 October 2016
We spoke to BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan about her memories of Parliament Hill, Hampstead.
What were your first impressions of Parliament Hill? How much of a daunting experience was it in your first year?
Back in 1979, stepping into the vast, cacophonous hallways of Parly, as it was known, was an intimidating experience. Coming from my small, quiet, loving primary school Brecknock on the Brecknock Rd to what seemed like this madhouse full of unruly, swearing girls was unsettling. On the first day two older girls tried to charge me 10p to use the toilet and pulled my hair when I baulked. In home economics, one unruly girl threw a sewing machine out of the window, to my horror. And one of our first assemblies was about the importance of not giving dirty looks to one another. Getting my haircut after school in the safe environs of the Camden Rd, I cried, and the sympathetic hairdresser told me there were only seven more years to go. This seemed like a life sentence at the time.
What was the school’s ethos at the time? At the time, the school was experimenting with streaming, albeit within a comprehensive model. However, streaming the formroom by ability proved deeply unpopular and was quickly abandoned. In Year 2 we were streamed and then by Year 3 it was over. The experiment of streaming the form room created classes of ‘posh’ girls in the top streams and underlined the educational and social divide. These were also the strike years – our NUT teachers went on strike as we were taking our O-levels and again as we took our A-levels. There was a lot of animus towards Margaret Thatcher.
Looking back on it, what would you say the style of teaching was like?
The biggest challenge for teachers in the early years was crowd control – this was before mandatory class sizes, and we regularly had 32 to 36 children in a class. An authoritative manner was crucial in a teacher, and those without one were doomed to shriek ever more wildly into the abyss.
Which subjects did you most enjoy and which topics or books particularly piqued your interest as a teenager? Was there anything which impacted on the career path you took upon leaving school?
I loved my English teacher Lynette Gottlieb, who was a fabulous South African full of energy and enthusiasm who instilled in us a love of reading. I spent my lunch hours in the library, away from the mean girl crowd patrolling the toilet, reading my way through Judy Blume’s canon. Forever is a stand out. Mrs Gottleib taught Hamlet and Othello with vigour and fierce intelligence. When I came back from a trip to India where I’d represented Britain as a young air cadet at India’s independence celebrations, Mrs Gottleib encouraged me to speak to the class about the experience – and so a reporter was born. A Passage to India by EM Forster was my favourite sixth form text – and I still reread it regularly. The ability to get on with people from a wide range of backgrounds is a skill I learned at school which has served me well in my working life.
What are your fondest memories of your time at the school? Do you get any pangs of nostalgia upon returning?
My fondest memory is my devoted head of year Barbara Davis-Walters being kind and patient with my 11-year-old self after she discovered I had invented an older brother. The other girls were keen to meet the fabled elder brother at the next door school William Ellis – explaining him away was getting tricky! Barbara understood immediately that my parents had recently divorced, I didn’t like Parly, I missed my warm and fuzzy primary school and thus had created a big brother to look after me. Don’t worry, said Barbara, it’s all going to be just fine, as she gave me a huge hug and a chocolate biscuit. And she was right. School improved after that. As for nostalgia – I most enjoyed being allowed out for lunch and visiting the bakery on Swain’s Lane for doughnuts. The smell of the Bunsen burner makes me nostalgic for our wild chemistry lessons with our male teacher who always seemed rather pained by our antics.
What aspects of your schooling would you say were in stark contrast to the modern world of education in the UK? How much pressure was there on you with regards to exams?
This was the laissez-faire seventies and eighties, before the rigor of testing, and at the apex of the war between the NUT and the department of education. Sadly, we lost our after school activities due to the strikes, and never got to play much on those wonderful tennis courts. The teaching style was warm and encouraging where possible, with crowd control where necessary. There was a lot of learning dates for history – I can still tell you the key dates of Franklin D Roosevelt’s administration! We had home economics a few times a week – looking back, it seems like there was an emphasis on cooking and sewing as skills thought necessary for girls who would eventually run households. I still can’t do either very well!
What was it like to go to school in the leafy environs of Hampstead Heath?
That was lovely. Cross country running was a joy, and the view from the top of Parliament Hill across London is still my favourite. However, the Heath did attract oddballs and a few times we had a flasher at the school gates – it didn’t take long for the cops to find him. So I was left with a sense of the wild beauty of the Heath and also the need to be wary.