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Tracy-Ann Oberman’s schooldays – “I’d have bunked off, but I was too scared of authority”

As a sci-fi and dystopia-obsessed teenager, Tracy-Ann Oberman felt adrift at school – but then everything changed at sixth form...

  • Tracy-Ann Oberman’s schooldays – “I’d have bunked off, but I was too scared of authority”

I went to a secondary school I absolutely detested, which represented everything about education that I hated then and still do now.

There was lots of pressure to hit certain ‘markers’, and expectations that everybody should aspire to the same goals, but no attempt at identifying individual pupils’ strengths and working with them.

The rules and regulations were endless. Detentions were given for wearing jumpers round your waist, for wearing skirts half an inch shorter than they should be, for ties not tied in an approved knot – being a bit of a rebel, it was the least nurturing and exciting educational establishment I could have had.

Had I been a different sort of child, and less compliant, I’d have probably bunked off, but I was too scared of authority to do that. Instead, I was the freaky kid who could be found sitting in the playground, probably talking about Doctor Who and reading 1984, yet the school kept telling me how stupid I was because I couldn’t do maths or science. I once managed to set my arm on fire with a Bunsen burner.

I enjoyed creative subjects, particularly narrative writing. I was obsessed with science fiction and dystopias, and can remember writing an essay that prompted a teacher to ring my mum and tell her that she wasn’t going to mark it, because I’d ‘Obviously copied it from somebody else.’ There was hardly any nurturing of minds there that thought outside the box.

That said, there were a couple of teachers who were very inspiring. I had a brilliant RE teacher called Mrs. Creasy, who was quite forward-thinking and made the learning of religion all about philosophical debate, discussion and analysis, and less about endless facts and figures. There was also a very good art teacher, who taught us from a young age about Botticelli and other artists in a way that really captured our imaginations.

When the time finally came for me to move into sixth form, the headmistress – who had the distinctly Dickensian name of Mrs Ribchester – told my parents ‘We don’t think Tracy’s all that intelligent, and that she shouldn’t be allowed to do more than one A-Level – perhaps two, at a push.’ At which point, I said ‘f*** off,’ walked out and promptly signed up at the local sixth form comprehensive. And that changed my life.

Seen, heard and valued

I remember getting an A- for my first English A Level essay, having never got anywhere near an A before, and bursting into tears. I told the teacher he must have marked it wrong, but he said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ And that marked the start of my love of learning and education – I’d been shown a completely different way of being taught and engaging with teachers.

Acting was something I’d always wanted to do, ever since a trip to the cinema to see The Amazing Mr. Blunden, which made a real impression on me, but I was quite shy and self-conscious. My parents had no truck with the idea of acting as a career – I may as well have said I wanted to be an astronaut – so for a long time I saw acting as something that simply wasn’t attainable.

But then my academic experiences at sixth form gave me the confidence to audition for the college play. I got one of the lead roles and loved it, which then gave me that push I needed to continue. I was no longer the person my secondary school had told me I was. I could now recognise my skills, celebrate them and use them to do anything I wanted.

An establishment that makes you feel seen, heard and valued for what you can do makes a huge difference. That’s what I experienced in the comprehensive sixth form system – in marked contrast to the time I’d spent at that poncey, prissy, up itself single-sex educational institution…

Tracy-Ann Oberman is an actor and media commentator, known for her TV roles in EastEnders, Friday Night Dinner, After Life and Code 404, among numerous others; she is also the presenter of the podcast Trolled and will play the role of Shylock in an upcoming touring production of The Merchant of Venice.

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