The teacher who swapped the classroom for The Great British Bake Off

    12 March 2020

    It’s not often that there’s a teacher on television outside of educational programmes. But last year, 28-year-old geography teacher Alice McFarlane bounded on to the tenth series of The Great British Bake Off. She reached the final in October, having wowed judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith. Shortcrust pastry treehouse, gingerbread wreath cake, lemon and blueberry hot cross buns — you name it, McFarlane has made it, all alongside lesson prep and containing excitable groups of Year 7s.

    We meet in London as McFarlane prepares to return to City of London School. She applied for Bake Off over the Christmas holidays in 2018 — her first as a teacher. ‘It’s one of those things where you think, I’ll never get on, but I had two weeks off and thought, why not?’ she says. She got the last audition slot of the series, and was initially chosen as the reserve. The day before filming was due to start, she got a call asking if she was still keen, ‘and that was me in’.

    Filming finished in mid-July, by which time McFarlane had broken up for summer. As if the stress of appearing on the most popular baking show on television wasn’t enough, she had to cope with being a newly qualified teacher completing her first year of school too. ‘In hindsight it probably wasn’t a great idea,’ she says, ‘but it worked out well in the end. It was a bit of a mad year. I don’t think I sat down for about four months. I was coming home from school and going straight into practising the showstopper [the third and final baking challenge each week] for four or five hours.’

    The daughter of two dentists, McFarlane grew up in Essex, and now lives in east London. A sporty musician, she loved her all-girls grammar school (‘I had some very supportive, inspirational teachers’). Aged 15 she was forced to give up running and playing the violin following a back operation, and began baking to distract herself. ‘I had always baked with my grandma and done it as a hobby, but for a year I could only do anything where I was sitting still or standing still, as I had a back brace on.’ Unable to take part in PE, during school time she retreated to the art department, and ‘at home I would do my baking. It’s always been a creative thing for me’.

    ‘I was coming home from school and going straight into practising the showstopper for four or five hours’

    After reading geography at university, and spending time living in New Zealand, she began working in schools on the pastoral side. Then, needing a teaching qualification to progress, she went to Cambridge to do a PGCE. ‘I like teaching more than I thought I would,’ she says. ‘I found it so rewarding dealing with pastoral issues with the students, but teaching is just as rewarding.’ City of London School is a big school, but she loves how ‘down to earth it is’, and tells me that there are plenty of boys on bursaries. ‘They come from all over and from mixed backgrounds. It’s such a nice environment. The kids are encouraged to be who they want to be — there are clubs for every student.’

    Home economics, scrapped as a GCSE subject in 2014, is not taught, but there is plenty of appetite — literally — for baking at school. Happily, geography lends itself well to edible teaching aides. ‘You can easily do a cake for things like coastal erosion,’ she says. ‘People might say that I’m making a mockery of geography if I teach with angel cake, for instance, but that misses the point. Doing something a little bit more fun for 20 minutes in a lesson isn’t going to mess things up.’

    Bake Off taught her a lot — and not just the art of making fig rolls. She learnt how to manage her time, ‘even if you think there’s too much going on. I remember that now when I’m busy, and think, no, you’re not busy now, you were busy then!’ It was after filming had finished, she says, that she learnt the most, having not seen the edits before the public did. An estimated seven million people watched the Bake Off final in October. ‘Watching it back was a whole other thing which I hadn’t thought about,’ she says. ‘The internet is a very critical place, and I’ve learnt more about that side of things — about people’s reactions to me, people thinking they know me, or having an opinion on me. That has brought more resilience than actually doing it. Baking is what I love doing, and at the end of the day I was standing in a tent baking in a field. All of us received challenges watching it back.’

    Many teachers keep their social media profiles hidden from their charges, but McFarlane’s was thrust into the spotlight during Bake Off. At the time of writing she had 110,000 followers on Instagram, where she is publicly ‘Alice Fevronia’, not using her surname. She is recognised out and about, but it is ‘a nice level of recognition — it’s always people who love baking and who watched the show who say that they liked what I was doing’. Previous Bake Off winners and runners-up have gone on to produce books and pick up newspaper columns. ‘I’d love to do a book, but if I’m going to, then it’s got to be meaningful, and not just something by another Bake Off contestant,’ McFarlane says. Her dream would be to start a baking school.

    The show, she says, was ‘life-changing. I’ve never been recognised as a baker, although my friends would eat my cakes and say, “You should go on Bake Off.” Now I’ve been recognised as being good at something that I love doing, which is just the best feeling in the world’.