A class of their own

image captionBerenice Goodwin taught art - and how to look at the world

The legacy of an inspirational teacher is felt down the ages, says Sarah Dunant in her A Point of View column.

Over the last weeks I've been to two separate memorial services for teachers - in one case also a headmistress - from my years in secondary school.

Margaret Gray was a splendid woman who died aged 97, alert and engaged to the end. Fuelled by a quiet but powerful personal faith, she worked tirelessly for girls' education, rising to be the headmistress of the voluntarily-aided state grammar which I attended in west London. With humanity and humour she steered the school through the social rapids of the 1960s (how short could our skirts be and what to do with the pupil found with a copy of Lady Chatterley inside her textbook - yes, that was me) and then weathered the educational storms of the 70s when the Labour government set out to abolish grammar schools. When in 1977 the school took the painful decision to go independent, she roared out of retirement to run the bursary fund securing free education for at least some new pupils with the ability, if not the money.

The second, more informal, celebration was for my teacher. I was 14 when Berenice Goodwin arrived to take over the art room. She would have been in her twenties then. She had grown up wanting to be a dancer, but ended up with not quite the right physique and so had followed her alternative passion, training at the Slade and, like many other women of her generation, finding her way into teaching.

She still had something of the dancer about her. She always wore ballet pumps and had that way of standing that made you think she might at any moment move into a deep plie. She had a mass of wiry hair, either pulled into a ponytail or billowing, like a black cloud, around her head and she wore colourful scarves and flamboyant jewellery. She was forthright, smart as a whip, passionate about art and treated us, even then, like the young adults we were longing to be. I, and many others, adored her. She nailed the exam process fast. These were the days when the curriculum was a creative guideline rather than a straightjacket and she regularly got her pupils top marks by teaching art as something dynamic, subversive and relevant to all of our lives.

And not just art. She was equally inspired by music, opera, literature and theatre. She took over the school productions, for which us art-room girls (what a Jean Brodie lot we were!) made the sets, the costumes, stage-managed, designed the lighting rigs, and of course acted, sometimes allowing the local boys school to join in. In short she was the adult we yearned to become; confident, colourful, rebellious. She helped us fly.

image captionLike Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Berenice exercised a powerful influence over her pupils

I owe my decision to go to university to her; it was she who in the plainest of words told me that while I might think I wanted to be an actress I should forget drama school and get a qualification in the subject I was really good at (history - which luckily I also loved). When I gave up acting after six months without work I had her to thank for the degree which got me meaningful employment.

She was equally plain-spoken about my failings. She once told me I was very careless. I had just ruined a costume, catching it in the wheel as I tore back across the playground with a costume rail after one of the plays. It had been a standard complaint on my school report for years: "Can be careless," "Does not pay enough attention to detail." But coming from her, it really hurt. And stuck. As you can tell, even now.

Berenice taught at the school for 30 years, through that move from grammar to independent, where she noted with her usual lack of sentiment how private education changed the expectations and behaviour of some pupils. She was, I suspect, not as much loved at the end of her career as she was at the beginning. But that is someone else's story to tell. Because loved by us she clearly was.

When I got the phone call almost two years ago, telling me she had broken part of her back at the same time as she had gone suddenly, irrevocably blind from a rare undiagnosed condition, I was by her bedside within 24 hours. I was not the only one. Over the next 18 months, her life - now contracted into a painful, and terrifying dark hole - was managed, along with wonderful carers, by a group of maybe 20 women of differing ages, all of whom had been her pupils. Each of us had our own Berenice story: architects, artists, actresses, sculptors, musicians, designers, we all felt that in some way or another we owed our careers to her. Not to mention the way she taught us to look at the world. Every time we go into an art gallery or a church or see a new play, she is there, opening our eyes a little wider, making us think more deeply about what we see.

Towards the end we became almost as important to her as she had been to us. Because she had no one else. An only child, she had no living family and never married. Her very forceful independence had made her not always easy to get on with. And I suspect that got more true as she grew older. Not that she was ever lonely. But while she had friends and an enduring passion for culture, I believe in some ways we girls were the most important part of her life. In this she was not alone. Both my headmistresses in primary and secondary school, as well as my most influential English and history teachers, had for various reasons (often the older ones had had boyfriends or fiancés who had died in war) lived all of their lives as single women. We, in effect, were the children they never had.

They were all deeply intelligent and manifestly capable. Many of them now would be running their own or other people's companies, be professors or vice chancellors of universities. Berenice would surely have her own art gallery or be running a theatre.

But in those decades after the war, when women were being pushed back into the home to replenish the population and re-establish normality, such openings were simply not there. So, instead, they gave their lives to teaching us girls. It proved to be a seminal moment for such a level of dedication. Because by the late sixties the western world was on the cusp of the second wave of feminism. We, their pupils, were the ones who would take the prize. But we were ready for it because they trained us. Never once in my life did anyone suggest to me that that being a girl was a limitation: that I couldn't think, argue, succeed, achieve, equal to any boy. And that message came loudest of all from those women teachers.

When Berenice Goodwin died last June after a sad final year (not surprisingly, given the passions of her life, she never did come to terms with her blindness and the loss of independence), we girls - now women - had a sense not just of what we had lost, but also what we had been given. Not just in terms of our own education, but also a moment in history. And thinking back on it as I write this, it's become even clearer to me that she, and women like her, have not been given enough credit for the part they played in what is surely the greatest social revolution of the last 50 years: women's fight for equality.

image captionToday's pupils face a whole new set of challenges

Of course, every generation tends to view the past through rose-coloured lenses as they grow older. The importance of teachers in children's lives is vital whatever moment in history you pick. Both of my daughters have had inspirational teachers, women and men who have cared for them emotionally as well as academically and have taught them as much about life as about learning. Indeed, one could argue that 50 years after feminism, both boys and girls have an even greater need of inspired teaching. Boys to handle the pressure that girls' success has brought to their own educational journeys, and girls to combat an increasingly vicious culture which equates celebrity with opportunity, and sexual availability with independence. To get the other side of the story, kids need to hear about life from adults they can trust. And for their teenage years at least, the views of their parents often don't cut the mustard.

The debate about education will, course, never end. How to ensure equality of opportunity? How far testing consolidates knowledge or just destroys curiosity? How to design a curriculum that leaves room for spontaneity and creativity for both pupils and teachers? And how to get away from the tyranny of those damn league tables?

Some of these issues of course, existed 40 or 50 years ago, but for a brief period, not for all, but for some, British education did indeed offer a gateway to a totally different kind of life from that which our parents had lived. For those lucky children - and I was one - the meritocratic moment was real.

Last week I picked up Berenice's bequest to me. A gilded Italian mirror, and a sample of that flamboyant jewellery. I am wearing a ring of hers now as I record this, while the mirror will soon be hanging in my study next to a bookshelf on which sits a novel about the Italian renaissance with my name on it: History, English, Art. Without her and those other extraordinary women who taught me, it would never have been written. Long may their memory live on.