Walthamstow School for Girls, which I attended as a student between 1989 and 1994, held its 117th annual presentation and achievement awards on Wednesday.
I felt deeply honoured to have been invited to present the awards and give the key note address as the ceremony’s Guest of Honour.
It felt very emotional to back at the “Green School” in such a formal capacity. Since I left 12 years ago, I have tried to go back every year to visit my old teachers and tell them what I’ve been up to. However, to be sat up on stage as a “dignatory” was really special. I couldn’t believe that 12 years had passed since I was sitting in the audience waiting to collect my own awards. Weird!
The highlight of the evening for me was seeing my favourite teacher of all time, Walthamstow Girls’ Head of Music Anne Loveluck (pictured with me above). Anne has been such a big influence in my life. She is the best music teacher in the world and our borough is lucky to have her.
Walthamstow Girls’ results just keep on improving and I am so proud that my old local comprehensive is outperforming many a British boarding and private school. The residents in my deprived area deserve nothing less and dynamic Head Teacher Rachel MacFarlane (pictured above centre) is determined to ensure that standards continue to rise.
Below is my speech to the Walthamstow School for Girls 117th Presentation Evening.
I am absolutely delighted to be here.
I can’t believe that I left nearly 12 years ago. It only feels like yesterday that I was sitting where you are, waiting to come up here on stage and receive my certificates.
So much time has passed since then and so many things have happened to me but wherever I’ve been since I left ‘Green School’ I know that I wouldn’t have got there if it hadn’t been for Green School.
I absolutely loved coming to this school. I think the fact that so many of my teachers are still your teachers, shows just what a lovely place Walthamstow Girls is to teach or learn in.
But it isn’t only a nice school to be a part of, it’s also a really really successful school. Every time I read the local paper I am proud to see that your results keep on improving and more and more of this school’s students are sending its girls to college and then to university.
Never underestimate the importance of this. We are in East London, this is not a rich area and our borough faces many social and economic challenges – high levels of infant mortality, unemployment that’s higher than the national average, and many more problems that more affluent areas do not suffer from – but despite this Walthamstow Girls manages to instil a pride in its students that is no different from students who go to boarding or private schools.
You really have a right to be proud. What you have achieved is amazing and now a whole exciting world awaits you.
There’s absolutely nothing you cannot do and if you keep on striving for success, success will be yours.
I’ve managed to achieve quite a bit since I left Walthamstow School for Girls and that is in no small part to the role that this school played in shaping my confidence and reminding me to ‘neglect not the gift that is in thee’. I’ll just tell you a little bit about my time at Walthamstow Girls and what I’ve been up to since.
My time at Green School
I began my relationship with WSFG in 1989, aged 11.
At the time, I wasn’t really happy about coming here. All my friends were going to Holy Family so I wanted to go there too. But to this day, I thank my mum that she didn’t listen to me when I cried, stomped and shouted. As is nearly always the case, mum knew best!
So I arrived here in September 1989 and was put in 7G – Mr d’angelo’s class. My class was full of strong feisty classmates, Usma, Kelly, Roxanna, Karen, Wenna and Debbie. I had never met such an opinionated bunch of girls!
As well as all the lessons, I soon threw myself into the brilliant extra curricular activities that this schools had – and still has – to offer.
I played the cello so I saw Ms Lovelock more than my own family! I loved my steel band lessons with Mr Murphy and singing in the choir.
I also liked sport so played Netball and basketball for the school team.
As well as all this, I also had the chance to take part in school plays – it was really great in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
All of these activities opened my eyes to so many new things. I still carry all of these experiences with me today. My first real taste of politics originated in this school when Mrs Marino, who was the head teacher here at the time, invited a former Cabinet Minster and Political Legend, Barbara Castle, to speak to my year group in year 11. I saw then that politics wasn’t only for rich men.
Leaving Green School
Anyway, after leaving WG after 5 happy years, it was time to move into the big bad world. Having really enjoyed Spanish, music and humanities whilst I was here, I decided to take up these subjects at A Level.
Two years after Leyton Sixth Form I decided that before going to university as I wanted to learn another language. WG had taught me that a world exists outside London and I was determined to visit it.
So I went to Germany to become an au pair, which is basically like a live in baby sitter for kids.
A lot of people were a bit surprised and asked me why Germany? And it’s true, how many Black girls from East London do you know who speak German?
But that’s exactly why I wanted to go and live there but I think that to be successful, one must follow their own path and do things their own way. I have always believed in working hard to acquire that ‘added extra’, which sets you apart from people in a positive way. So learning German was one of the ways I added to gaining some ‘added extra’.
After Germany, it was off to Manchester to study for an undergraduate degree in European Studies with Modern Languages.
Remember that I had enjoyed Spanish, Music and Humanities at Green School? Well, now I was at Uni learning about them at the highest level.
I loved my time at Manchester. Going to university was fantastic and life changing. I made many friends from many parts of the country and the world, from many different backgrounds and from many different social statuses.
A few people said to me, “Did you go to private school?” and when I asked why they responded, “Because you are so confident”. People thought that only people who went to private school had any confidence. If you came from east London and had gone to your local comprehensive then you obviously had not had a good education.
But everyone in this room knows they are wrong because I went to Walthamstow for Girls – the best training in confidence any young women will ever need.
Due to that confidence and grounding that I first received here, I went on to achieve a first-class honours in my degree, the highest grade I could have obtained. Only two people on my course achieved those grades that year and both of us went to school in our local comprehensive.
By the time I finished Uni I was much more interested in politics – I had joined the Labour party in my 2nd year – and also knew a lot about the European Union from my course.
However, I wanted to experience the EU for myself rather than reading about in books so I decided that I wanted to go to Brussels and see if I could get an opportunity to spend some time in the European Parliament.
I wrote to our local Member of the European Parliament, who’s called Claude Moraes, and asked him if I could shadow him in his office. Claude receives hundreds of letters so I didn’t expect a reply but to my delight, he did respond and said yes!
So in the autumn of 2001, I packed my bags and headed for Brussels to see what the European Parliament did. There were people from everywhere debating really important issues and I loved it.
I think that’s when my real hunger for politics began – when I saw the European Parliament debating whether employees should be given more rights and time off for holidays; where they also talked about the environment and how to protect people’s civil liberties.
I spent some time with Claude and then in the EU’s department looking after employment issues and social affairs before deciding I wanted to come back to London to learn some more.
In October 2002, I started a Master’s Degree in Employment Relations at the London School of Economics before starting my first full time job in January 2004, at Acas the mediation service, which provides employment advice to businesses and their employees.
There, aged 25, I had the scary privilege to be advising the Chair and Chief Executive of this massive organisation, with 900 employees and 7 regional offices, on what our organisation would do to help prevent the next national railway strike or on how to address meetings with government ministers.
Back in London, Local Politics
And it was at this time, while working for Acas that I began to become actively involved in politics.
I had always admired my local MP in Leyton, Harry Cohen, and Neil Gerrard, our local MP here in Walthamstow. I wanted to get involved properly and support them in their work.
So I went to my local party meetings and became Vice Chair, and membership secretary and campaign officer before finally becoming a local councillor last May.
I don’t know how much you know about the local council so I’ll tell you a little about it: there are 60 of us councillors from all the areas in Chingford, Walthamstow and Leyton, in charge of street cleaning, the local schools, housing and a lot more important areas.
I am a bit of a rare species on my council. I’m 28, I’m a woman and I’m also Black. I don’t know if you knew that only 3.5% of all UK councillors are Black, that only 24% are women and that out of 21,000 councillors only 62 are in their mid-twenties!!!!
So what on earth am I doing there?
Well, I’ll tell you that one of the biggest buzzes I get from being a local councillor is being able to help people in my local area, in the area I was, in fact, born in.
There are many people with lots of problems in Leyton. We have severe overcrowding – one family I know have to sleep 11 people in 2 bedrooms.
We also have many people who are unemployed and I want to work with the council and my Member of Parliament and the Government to lobby them to help create more jobs.
I also want to be involved in us opening more youth centres and facilities. In Leyton, 50% of my residents are under 30 years old.
So that’s the kind of thing I’m involved in as a local councillor and it can be very challenging sometimes.
Many people want to put you down and patronise you. They think that if you’re a young woman then you won’t know what you’re talking about.
But they’re wrong because ever since I left Walthamstow Girls I have always kept in my head our school’s motto of ‘neglect not the gift that is in thee’. And this motto has helped me immensely.
Since being elected, I have also changed full time jobs. In September, I left Acas after nearly 3 years and went to work at London’s City Hall.
100 people applied for my job but I managed to get it. And again, I think it’s because I had faith in my abilities and didn’t think that a job like that was out of my reach.
So if I have any advice to give you this evening, it would be to also take our school’s motto with you on your journey, on wherever it is that you decide to go, as you now head out into the world.
Never let anyone put you down because of where you’re from or because you’re a woman.
Stand up for yourself and argue your corner when you know that you that have something valuable to say.
Always aim high and have belief in yourself and your abilities.
And also, always to try and live your one life in your own special way.
I’m trying to do all of those things every day.
So far, our school’s motto of ‘neglect not the gift that is in thee’ has really served me well.
I know that having gone to Walthamstow Girls will serve you well too. And I hope that when you look back at your time here in 12 years time that you will feel as proud as I have to have been a student in this school.
I wish you all the best with all your future endeavours and if there are any budding politicians amongst you out there I will be happy to help you along your way!
Well done and a huge congratulations for all your achievements over the last few years.
I feel honoured to be here with you all to share your special night and to meet you all.
Neglect not the gift that is in thee.