Inside Number Ten

Louisa Chattertpn, who left RGS in 2018, now works as a private secretary for a government minister, a role which has included spending a week inside Number 10. She reveals how her career path wasn’t straightforward but by embracing her failures, she learnt important lessons, using them as a springboard for self-improvement.

She aspires to become a foreign ambassador one day, and has lots of advice for students wishing to follow a similar career path, including making use of the extremely valuable network of former RGS students.

Following A-levels in maths, English literature and chemistry at RGS, Louisa studied education, policy and international development at the University of Cambridge

Q: What did you go on to do after university and how did it lead to the role you’re working in now?

A: In my second year at university, I did an internship with an insurance firm called Hiscox which was based in York. I worked in an operations role with this company for six weeks, working virtually during the peak of the pandemic, and it was a steep learning curve. At the end, I was offered a role on their graduate scheme based in London.

Given my positive experience during the internship, I had no doubt that joining the graduate scheme was the right decision for me, so I started out as an underwriter for the London Market. I underwrote risks for catastrophe insurance, such as earthquakes and hurricanes. Although I gained some constructive insights into working in the corporate world, I could feel after only two months that this career wasn’t right for me.

Without delay, I looked elsewhere for my next career step, and made an application for the Civil Service fast stream. I had applied once before in my final year of university but was unsuccessful. The scheme is notoriously difficult to get onto due to the high volume of applicants. I messaged a former RGS student on LinkedIn, who I could see was already on the Civil Service fast stream and they mentored me through my application. Upon my second attempt, I was successful.

But working for the finance team as my first job in the Civil Service wasn’t engaging to me. I felt far more drawn towards the policy and was itching to get involved in the buzzing policy activity going on in the department.

An opportunity came up for me to work directly with one of the government ministers for a brief period, and I jumped at it. I spent two weeks working closely with the minister for social mobility, youth and progression. This short period was incredible for me. My eyes were opened to the reality of working in the heart of Westminster. This job role was much closer to the politics and the policy – the areas which I found to be truly fascinating.

I knew immediately that I had found the right job for me, and that I wanted to work as a private secretary. The team offered me a permanent job and I left the fast stream early to take on this opportunity.

I’ve been working in this job role for the last nine months, and it has truly been a rollercoaster. Every day is different – some days, I support the minister on official visits, briefing her with key information and helping her to prepare speeches. Other days, I go to the House of Commons to support the minister in debates. And perhaps most crucially, I act as the minister’s spokesperson to the wider department, to communicate her policy decisions and direction to the various teams which work within government.

Louisa pictured top left, supporting the minister from the officials box in the House of Commons 

Q: Can you outline a typical day?

A: It’s difficult to outline a typical day as a private secretary because every day looks different. The role is incredibly varied, and no two days look the same.

Last week, one of my days began with a ministerial meeting with a homelessness charity at the House of Commons. I accompanied the minister and made sure she was fully briefed and prepared to talk about the actions which the government is taking to reduce homelessness. I was responsible for making sure she had the key statistics to hand, and that she felt comfortable in speaking to the charity in an informed and considered way.

After the meeting, I joined the minister in returning to Westminster to continue our day working from the office. The minister is an incredibly busy person, so it’s my job to read through policy advice which has been sent to her. I condense information down into the key facts and figures, making it as easy as possible for the minister to take these important decisions.

After spending part of my day reading through policy advice, correspondence, and press information, I had a short period of one-to-one time with the minister. This time is used as an opportunity to explain various issues and advise her on the pros and cons of various policy decisions she needs to make.

Q: What have been the highlights of your career to date?

A: The highlight of my career so far has been spending a week working at Number 10 Downing Street in the Prime Minister’s private office, where I spent one week working for a key political advisor, the director of strategy for Number 10. It was a fantastic opportunity to gain insight into the workings of central government, and more importantly, I made friends with Larry the cat!

Another key highlight for me has been supporting the minister at a debate in the House of Commons. I worked closely with her and policy teams to prepare a speech and briefing pack for an important debate regarding the government’s cost of living payments. During the debate, I sat in the officials’ box to pass notes to the minister to support her in the debate. This was nerve-wracking and high-pressured, and certainly a key career highlight for me.

Making friends with No 10's Larry the cat

Q: What’s the best bit about your job?

A: The best bit about my job is the opportunity to have the direct audience of an important decision maker, and to think carefully about key policy issues which affect our country. Working in the Civil Service allows you to make a genuinely meaningful contribution to society, and ultimately, to play a part in serving democracy.

Q: And the worst?

A: The job can be quite stressful at times. I answer to a powerful principal, so the pressure to deliver a high-quality service can be exhausting at times. But I take consolation knowing I’m building tougher skin each day.

Q: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

A: One of the hardest things about my career has been the journey I’ve taken to finding a job which I actually enjoy. I’ve had to go through several jobs which I found to be boring, or lacking in challenge, and I’m glad I persevered to keep looking until I found a job which I love.

Q: What was the most important thing you learnt at RGS?

A: RGS encouraged me to be curious. Questions were embraced by my teachers, and consequently, curiosity has undoubtedly translated to my working life. Not only has curiosity exposed me to a wider breadth of information, but it’s also made my work life that much more nourishing and enjoyable each day.

Q: What extracurricular activities were you involved in while at RGS?

A: I used to be absolutely obsessed with House Drama (shout out to the wonderful Mr Fell). I took part in the competition every single year at school, and I loved every second.

I also played on the netball and hockey teams, and in my final year at school, I was part of the chamber choir. I utterly loved the extracurricular activities at RGS and look back on my memories of these activities with great fondness.

Q: What do you wish you’d known back then?
I wish I had known how to deal with failure. Although cliched, failure has been integral to the most influential lessons I’ve experienced at work. I now know to embrace my failures – lean into them, reflect, and use them as a springboard for self-improvement. I was a perfectionist during my time at school, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve relinquished this aspect of my character at work. Without a doubt, perfect is the enemy of good.

Q: What was your dream when you were at school?

A: When I was at school, I absolutely loved musical theatre (and still do). I adored the show Les Misérables and was lucky enough to play the role of Eponine in Ripon Grammar’s production of the show. I used to dream of playing this role in the West End, but I’m a big believer in having multiple dreams, only some of which you might be lucky enough to live. My ambitions have been constantly evolving, and my new dream is to work as a foreign ambassador later in my career.

Q: What is the one piece of advice you’d give students interested in following a similar career path?

A: If you’re interested in a career in the Civil Service, the graduate schemes can be a strong starting point. This might sound controversial, but don’t wait until you feel ready to make the next move – just jump in. Truthfully, I never feel ready to progress to the next step, but my belief is that doing it anyway is how we grow.

More generally, I would strongly encourage students to get in touch with people who work in the industry you want to work in and ask them for their advice. Ask your teachers about ex-students, make a LinkedIn profile, make friends with older students – all these actions will allow you to start forging the connections which will help you in your career for years to come.

Q: Who was your favourite teacher and why?

A: My favourite teacher was Mr Fearnley. He has inspired a lifelong love of literature and theatre in my life, and even today, I regularly think about the lessons we used to have. We would have compelling debates in English lessons, where he would constantly challenge our viewpoints and push the class to justify their conclusions, for which I’m incredibly grateful. I particularly enjoyed studying The Crucible, and Mr Fearnley’s love for the character of John Proctor was truly infectious.

Q: Who or what inspired you when you were at school?

A: I had immense admiration for some of the older students during my time at Ripon Grammar, and I think this has stood me in great stead. I would always look to the older students for inspiration, especially when it came to studying at university. There was one student who went on to study at the University of Cambridge, and after seeing his success, I was desperate to follow in his footsteps.

Even in my short career, I’ve found the network of Ripon Grammar School students to be incredibly valuable, and I’m grateful for the tremendous role models I had during my time at school.

Q: What would you say has been your greatest success?

A: My greatest success has been my work on the housing policy portfolio in delivering the minister’s policy ambitions at the 2023 Autumn Statement. I played an instrumental role in securing £7 billion of funding from the Treasury, working with the minister to argue the case for increasing housing support from the government. This was a highly significant investment to uprate the local housing allowance rate, impacting the amount of housing benefit to support people with the high cost of rental accommodation.

I distinctly remember the day where the entire office was gathered around the TV screen to watch the chancellor give his statement – and we all burst out cheering when we heard the announcement.

Q: And biggest disaster?

A: Early in my role, I forgot to supply an important briefing document to the minister ahead of a meeting. Ministers are incredibly busy, and because of my blunder she was forced go into the meeting blind. Luckily she was knowledgeable on the policy area, so the meeting managed to go smoothly – but this was an epic failure on my part, and I certainly won’t be forgetting that mistake in a hurry.

Q: What do you miss most about Ripon?

A: One thing which I miss about my time from school is singing in the spectacular cathedral as part of the choir. There is something almost meditative about singing as part of a group in beautiful surroundings, and I regularly reminisce about the days where the choir would perform in Ripon Cathedral.

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

A: I would jump at the chance to work at the Treasury, or in the Foreign Office in the diplomatic service.