Education: Passed/Failed Andreas Whittam Smith

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The Independent Online
Andreas Whittam Smith, 61, is the founder of The Independent and Independent on Sunday.

He was City editor of The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, and is now president of the

British Board of Film Classification as well as a columnist for The Independent

First edition: In 1940, when I was three, I went to the prep school of Birkenhead School, Cheshire, because it had an air-raid shelter - and a very heavy bombing raid had flattened the city. I stayed there until I was 18. It wasn't really a proper public school, but a direct-grant day school. I came from a vicarage and my father had little or no money to spend on my education. There were a vast number of free places, and the fees were small.

Le Miserable: I wasn't very happy at the school, but I now have amicable feelings. I am president of an appeal fund designed to replace money taken away when the assisted places scheme comes to an end. It wasn't the school's fault that I was in no sense a success. I was neither very successful academically nor at sport. I knew I wasn't going to be a prefect. I was a miserable fellow at the end of the queue. I suppose I was one of nature's late developers.

Economical with the A-levels: I passed the 11-plus, or our version of it, to go to "Big School". I did my O-levels and A-levels: they turned out OK. My main claim to fame was that, with one or two others, I was the first boy in the North of England to do economics. There were no commercial interests in my family, but from an early age I enjoyed the City and business sections of the newspapers.

Commoner as muck: I got myself into Oxford; the school wasn't interested in helping because they thought I wasn't bright enough to get a scholarship. The myth that schools propagated, out of intellectual snobbery or possibly ignorance, was that you sat the scholarship exam and got a place, even if you didn't win an award. I lived in my local library, and one evening I came across the statutes of Oxford University. I discovered - always read the small print! - that you could get a place by sitting an exam to enter as a "commoner" rather than as a scholar. I saw that Keble College was a clerical foundation; my father got me a reference from the bishop, and I then had the pleasure of telling the school that I had the place.

A vicar's son in paradise: Oxford was as great a shock as national service, when I had been in the infantry and guarded Spandau Prison in Berlin. Oxford in the late Fifties was still the world of Brideshead Revisited - which I certainly wasn't. I entered into it as fully as possible; I knew at the time that nothing would be as nice again. Journalism didn't occur to me at the time. I made it a rule - it was very juvenile and a luxury nobody could afford today - that I would never do anything which anyone could construe as being beneficial in my future career. I read philosophy, politics and economics, the chattering classes degree, which I enjoyed very much. I specialised in philosophy; it transformed my life and my way of thinking. It had a permanent effect on me, lasting until this very day.

Third edition: I was so ashamed and miserable about having a third-class degree that I didn't take my degree. Finally, many years later, I ended up as an honorary fellow of Keble College, and decided that I must take my BA before I was found out. I took my BA and MA in one morning. A college servant said: "Just to please us, will you wear a scholar's gown?"

Stop press: I have retained my interest in philosophy and am now reading Bryan Magee's The Story of Philosophy - very slowly. I have got up to Aristotle so far.

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