Education: Passed/Failed Philip Gould

Philip Gould, 48, is an adviser to the Prime Minister and worked on President Clinton's election campaign. A campaign strategist, he is the author of 'The Unfinished Revolution'
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The unfinished homework: My mother died when I was 21, and her illness was a central presence during my childhood. She was ill from an early age, with a degenerative condition of the brain. My father said that when I was a child she would wander off and leave me to cry. My father was a headmaster and taught at the two primary schools near Woking that I went to. I was really happy, although there was a certain ambivalence; he had a dual role and I wasn't sure if he was being my father or the head. I like studying now but was really not much good at school - I was dyslexic - and resisted doing homework. My parents were extremely kind, and didn't nag me as I nag my kids.

My tiny mind is frozen: There was a great deal of preparation for the 11-plus. The day of the exam was awful. I took one look at the paper and I just froze. I went home to lunch, to be greeted by my parents - my mother in tears, my father ashen - telling me I had failed already.

Flogging a dead course: Knaphill Secondary Modern was the school from hell. First, everybody there knew they were a failure. Second, this was a secondary modern school pretending to be a public school. Third, we were caned individually, in groups, outdoors, indoors, upstairs, downstairs. Then there was the metalwork, the heart of the school's rationale. Mostly we filed; always it was grindingly, gruesomely boring. They changed the name to Winston Churchill Secondary Modern and it is now a comprehensive - obviously an excellent comprehensive. The head has asked me to present the prizes to the pupils at speech day, which I will be doing.

School of hard rocks: I left school at 16 with one O-level. I went to Farnborough Technical College for half a term, and then fell out with them. Then I stopped doing anything for a year or two; I travelled round the country and went to pop concerts and demonstrations, then did Community Service Volunteers for a year, until I was 18.

A-level playing-field: Then the educational system came into its own. It took me months of Saturdays, poring over prospectuses in Guildford Library, to find out that the new University of Sussex accepted students with no O-levels, as long as they had A-levels. I went to East London College, based in Toynbee Hall, and three years later, with four not very good A-levels, and still only one O-level, I got into Sussex. It is impossible not to enjoy Sussex University. I got a 2.1 in politics.

Second thought: The London School of Economics was the university I had always wanted to go to - it is imbued with Fabian Socialism - and I did an MSc in history of political thought, getting a distinction. It wasn't much fun, but academically it was outstanding.

Adman and admin: I decided to try advertising. My father was horrified - to him it was a pact with the devil. Then, aged 34, I went full time for a year to the London Business School, which was a bridging-point between advertising and politics. It was tremendously demanding. If you are doing politics at university, you know where you are; but accountancy and business studies - this stuff is very difficult.

But it is really useful in politics. It gave me a deeper confidence, a sense that I could do something with my life: I found out that it is possible to make a contribution - and make some money.

Interview by Jonathan Sale