Three successful sisters, dozens of stories to tell. We took the Huq sisters back to their school days
The Huq sisters – Nutun, Rupa and Konnie – have each climbed to the top of a ladder in three very different careers. Nutun Ahmed, the eldest of the trio, is a prominent architect; middle sister Rupa is the MP for Ealing Central & Acton; and Konnie, the youngest, is a TV presenter and children’s author.
Daydreaming out of classroom windows, snowfall in April, prank phone calls from the school payphone, loo paper papier maché stalactites stuck to the ceiling and buckets of water balanced on open doors for unsuspecting Latin teachers. Not the high-jinks-filled plot of an Enid Blyton novel, but in fact the Huq sisters’ memories of school days at Notting Hill & Ealing High School (NHEHS). They talked to us about their collective 15 years at NHEHS, and what shaped them during their time at school.
“When we were at school it was very much about ‘girls can do anything’ and ‘you’re not limited’. It was the idea that the sky is the limit, and you can do anything you like.”
The teachers and the teachings
Sitting in the library at NHEHS, Nutun and Konnie reminisce about the old science block and the day the helicopter landed in the school grounds. Rupa leans forward, “I remember the individual teachers,” she says. Miss Chapman, whose matchless timetabling meant that every girl in the Sixth Form was able to pursue her own, unique blend of A Levels and Mrs Sergeant, to whom Konnie attributes her break into television.
“The teachers like Mrs Sergeant really stuck their necks out,” Konnie says. The fledgling TV presenter was going to auditions while still at school, and realised that she wouldn’t be able to take up a job offer because of her studies; it was Mrs Sergeant who took up the mantle, and spoke to the TV company because “it would look good on [your] university application.” “I think this kind of thinking was ahead of its time,” says Konnie.
Nutun recalls many of the teachers during her schooldays were Polish immigrants who had escaped from the continent during the war. “They came to England with refugee status, and worked their way up from nothing; a lot of the teachers from my era had incredible back stories and were really inspirational,”she says.
Rupa highlights the predominantly female teaching staff during her NHEHS days, resulting in female role models in all subjects, and a gender stereotype-free environment all round. But it was also about female role modelling. More names are reeled off; Mrs Fitz, Miss Percy, Mrs Whitfield and Mrs Rhys, Rupa’s A-Level politics teacher, before the three sisters start to look at the influence their teachers had on them.
Konnie adds, “There’s a real trend, especially in children’s literature, to have inspirational women role models… and I feel the school had that ethos before it became trendy.”
Where reputations are made
It’s easy to gain a reputation at school, but whether it’s an accurate reflection of who you are, or who you will become, was where the conversation headed next.
“I was known as Red Rupa, Labour MP Rupa says, “because I always wore red socks. I was just reminded about it this week. We were allowed to wear socks in any of the school’s colours – blue, white or red – and I was the only one who wore red.”
Nutun’s reputation was for talking. “I’m a chatterbox,” she says, “but on several occasions I got sent out of the classroom when I hadn’t even opened my mouth, because of my reputation. And I was good at art, which is why I went into architecture. Sometimes people would ask me to draw things for them, but I would help them and get no work done myself.”
Konnie thinks she was probably known for “being a bit chatty and a bit off the wall,” and is reminded by her sisters that she was forever doodling in the margins of her school work. “I doodle now in my children’s book, Cookie! …and the Most Annoying Boy in the World,” says Konnie. “I used to write notes and letters and postcards to people and actually a lot of the doodles are exactly the same as the stuff in Cookie. There’s a bird I always used to draw, and these hedgehogs, and they’re both in the book now and they haven’t changed at all.”
“Wait,” says Nutun, “did you nick that hedgehog from the hedgehog that I used to do?”
“Some of our teachers came to England with refugee status, and worked their way up from nothing; a lot of the teachers from my era had incredible back stories and were really inspirational.”
The best of times
Laughing, both Nutun and Rupa point at Konnie when asked the question of who had it best in the Huq family. Konnie looks surprised.
Rupa explains, “I think that over the generations, my parents softened and the school got more laid back. When Nutun went, she was a child of the 60s, it was all very dark and foreboding, with dark panelling everywhere… I was between the two and by the time Konnie went there, it was more liberal.”
Nutun jumps in at this point, “I think everyone sees things from their own perspective. I enjoyed school. I enjoyed the socialising, even if I didn’t necessarily enjoy the academic rigour.”
“I was the middle one,” adds Rupa, “Nutun had the strictest time, including from our parents because she was the first born, so they didn’t want her to go out of London for university. But by Konnie… well, she got away with murder.”
Nutun laughs, “Yes, she got away with blue murder! She could do whatever she wanted.” But then she reflects, “When we were at school it was very much ‘girls can do anything’ and ‘you’re not limited’. It was the idea that the sky is the limit, and you can do anything you like.”
The uniform may have changed, and the Huq sisters have left their prank phone-call days behind them, but the message is still the same. Notting Hill & Ealing High School is still a place where girls learn without limits.