Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, has criticised the pressure put on children to perform in school and the rivalry this breeds between them.
Speaking at the Festival of Education at Wellington College, she said there was more camaraderie when she was at school and contrasted this with the “intense” competition today.
“It was all about trying to do your best, trying to find out what you were good at and what you enjoyed. It was more about joining in and forming part of a team than it was about always being the best at everything,” she said of her school days, according to The Daily Telegraph.
“Those sort of principles were the ones I carried on into my later life.”
After school she studied English at Edinburgh University and later became a historical archivist. Dame Stella, who was born in 1935, was director general of MI5 from 1992 to 1996. She has since written a number of novels.
She described her early working life as “halcyon days”.
“I didn’t take my career seriously and in many ways it was a great help in my life because I look at the young constantly being asked what they are going to do and they are really focused by the time they leave school on some kind of profession and I think it is quite stressful for them,” she said.
“Women were not expected to have long careers. We were expected to have little jobs that were to keep us occupied until we got married and became mothers.”
Dame Stella said women could make better spies than men in some circumstances.
“They are often better at listening, for sort of quiet support that somebody in a difficult, dangerous situation needs – instilling confidence. They’re not always quite so intense as a young man might be, desperate to get the information,” she said.
“A woman might be able to be just slightly more relaxed. But you know, again, I find it very difficult to say all women are this or that and all men are this and that because they’re not. We know they come in all different shapes and sizes.
“That’s why I always go back to this important thing about diversity in any organisation or company.”