To celebrate The Open University’s 50th Anniversary year, OU Honorary Graduate Prue Leith joined us for an ‘In conversation’ talk last week, led by fellow writer and Honorary Graduate Val McDermid.
Speaking to the audience of OU students, alumni, partners and other members of the wider OU family, Prue described how her passion for new challenges has driven her forward throughout her many careers.
“I think that I have been very lucky because about every 25 years I have started doing something different,” said Prue. “I was in food very solidly until I turned 50 and then for 25 years, I was writing novels. The next thing is always the most exciting.”
In addition to her culinary credentials as Michelin-starred chef, restaurateur, writer and broadcaster, Prue has been a Director of many companies including British Rail and Safeway and has used her skills in the boardroom to chair many other organisations. In her role at education company 3es, she helped to successfully turn around failing state schools and remains a passionate advocate for education.
“It’s an absolute obsession,” said Prue. “I find it so distressing that there are so many bad schools. None of it is rocket science, if I were to ask, ‘what makes a good school?’ we would all say similar things: good teaching, teachers who want children to succeed, a decent, clean building and nobody coming to school hungry!”
‘Make food a lesson’
Bringing together her passions for food and better education, Prue spoke of the important role that schools can play in teaching children about eating well from an early age.
She described being inspired by schools that ‘make food a lesson, but a pleasant one’, where children are encouraged to ditch the lunchboxes and sit together with teachers and the cooks during lunchtime to learn about the food they are eating.
As well as looking to improve food in the classroom, Prue’s other latest ‘obsession’ is with improving hospital food so that patients have access to nutritious and tasty options. “It really needs an overhaul,” she said.
The power of education
Host of the evening Val McDermid is similarly prolific in her own work and is one of the biggest names in crime writing. Val has produced 27 novels which have sold over 16 million copies worldwide. As well as her fiction works, she is a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Scotland and contributes to several British newspapers.
Val became the first student from a Scottish state school to be admitted to St Hilda’s College in Oxford and has always been a firm believer in the power of education to change lives, no matter where you begin in life. She has previously described the OU as an ‘opportunity for people who for whatever reason have not been able to take advantage of those early educational opportunities’.
‘Life should always be a learning curve’
When describing Prue and the many roles she has taken on through her life, Val said:
“Prue is the living embodiment of something I said at my Open University degree ceremony: that ‘life should always be a learning curve’, and the OU makes this possible so people can expand their horizons at any point of their lives.”
When asked how Prue finds the appetite to take on so many challenges, she described herself as being ‘lucky’ and admitted that ‘being bossy’ helps too.
“My reaction to a barrier in the road is to try to get past it, not to obey it,” said Prue.
“My work is entirely selfish though, I do it because I love it and I love to see a change. I’m lucky because my day job a lot of the time does involve eating cake!”
Carly Sumner is a Digital Content Officer in the Development Office at The Open University. She loves telling stories and has spent the past 10 years writing about everything from nappy bags to balance transfers. She holds a BA (Hons) in Journalism and Media Studies from Coventry University. When she’s not writing, Carly enjoys reading, sharing good food with great people, and all things colourful.