Dame Stella Rimington – former Director General of MI5

1. What did you like about school?

I particularly liked the variety of things we did, like school plays and going on outings. Also that it provided me with an opportunity to find out what I enjoyed, what I was good at and that sort of thing. Plus, ultimately, the friendliness of everybody.

2. What did you dislike?

Most of my schooling was at Nottingham Girls’ High School, which is a day school, which I came to from a small convent school in the north of England. At first I didn’t like it at all, because I came a year later than anyone else [aged 12] after my father changed his job, so I turned up and everybody else had got friends.

3. What seems strangest to you about school when you look back at it now?

What seems strange to me is the way the school has physically developed, the quality of the resources they now have available: the playing fields, the labs, the technology. All that seems strange, to me, from my own experience, but nevertheless seems very right, very modern and up-to-date, and necessary for the education of girls today.

4. Who was your favourite teacher?

Miss Macaulay, my English teacher. I went on to study English [at university], so obviously she inspired me with a love of her subject. I think the fact I can vividly remember at least three teachers is a sign they were very inspirational.

5. If you could go back to school and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Try everything – you won’t succeed in everything but it will help you decide what you like, and what you don’t like, what you are good at, and what you are not, and enable you to make choices later in life.

6. Would you prefer to be a schoolchild when you went to school, or now? Why?

Golly. That’s difficult. I think probably when I went to school. Now it all seems so incredibly competitive and I don’t recall being quite as stressed as I think some children get now.

7. What is the biggest problem in education today?

I don’t think I am very well-placed to answer that. I suppose, looking at it from the outside, one problem I think exists is the unevenness of education; there seems to me, as an outsider, some really brilliantly excellent schools and some really poor schools, and that doesn’t seem, to me, to be right. I think we need to get more of a level standard.

8. What is the solution?

I think the solution is extremely complex which is why the problem exists. I honestly don’t know – otherwise I would be a politician, which I am not. Money comes into it, somewhere. We should regard teaching as one of the really top professions but, certainly several years ago, I was aware it was no longer being regarded in that way and I think that’s a failure of the situation.

9. What would your ideal school of the future look like?

I still believe in single-sex education, particularly for girls, so it would be a girls’ school, or a boys’ school, but as I am a female I would say it would be a girls’ school. It would offer a really wide variety of choices, and the quality of the teaching would be inspirational. It would be able to cater for both those who are intellectually brilliant and those who had talents in other directions, so it would offer a very wide variety of subjects all taught to a very high standard. It would instil self-confidence in all its pupils.

Dame Stella Rimington is a speaker at the Sunday Times Education Festival on 18 & 19 June 2015