Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Tim Harford, writer and economist
'I was top of the class and arrogant'
Thursday 03 August 2006
Tim Harford, 32, is the presenter of the BBC2 series 'Trust Me I'm an Economist', which starts on 18 August. He is a Financial Times columnist and author of The Undercover Economist.
I did go to playschool because I remember complaining to my mother about being moved to "work" - ie primary - school. In fact, Oaklands, in Handforth, Cheshire, not far from where all the footballers' wives now live, was not particularly arduous. The first thing was to draw lots of ones and twos and threes, which was rather dull.
I had drawing competitions with a schoolfriend. We would draw a picture of a dinosaur and show it to his mum and she always said his was better than mine. I do believe he went on to become a professional artist. From about eight I wanted to be a writer and produce the next epic fantasy trilogy. For three or four years I would fill whole notebooks with my terrible handwriting and drawings of dragons. Floppy discs of these epics survive somewhere but fortunately modern computers cannot read them.
At the age of 12 I began to edit a Dungeons and Dragons magazine called Adventurous Friend with a print run of about eight, photocopied by my father at work. I produced four issues in a year; I haven't seen any copies on eBay.
We moved to Chesterfield and I went to Whitecotes, a junior school where I was perfectly happy; I've generally been quite happy at school. Then I went to Manor Comprehensive; the teaching was very good but the school was a bit rough. I was there for a year, until one day the deputy head called me into her office and gave me a test, which qualified me to go to a grammar school in Buckinghamshire, where my family was about to move to. Now I realise the kids in Buckinghamshire schools would go through hell and have coaching to get this "12-plus" exam. Isn't it a pity all exams couldn't be like that, so that you're told retrospectively that you've passed and that it was very important?
At Aylesbury Grammar they did these strange imitations of private schools, doing Greek and Latin and that sort of thing, but despite that it was good. Unfortunately it was boys only, which set me back in important matters.
I wasn't made a prefect. The head of year told me it was "because you wind everybody up and not many people like you". I'm not sure his comments qualified as good pastoral care but it was fair comment. I was often top of the class and arrogant, but I was quite oblivious to all this. (When I went to university, I thought, "What can I do not to annoy people?" That is an economist's way of thinking about things, the intellectualisation of how you should behave towards people.)
I took 10 GCSEs, including Latin and Greek. I got As in them all; this is what I thought I would get, which was the sort of behaviour that pissed people off. My A-levels were maths, further maths, English, general studies and an AS in French. I got mostly As, although I got an E in further maths, as I worked out that I didn't need that A-level to get into university and so I concentrated on the others: a very good example of cost-benefit analysis.
I got into Oxford and read philosophy, politics and economics at Brasenose. I was planning to drop economics at the end of the first year but my philosophy tutor said, "The economics people think your strength is in economics - and we agree."
I was disappointed when I got a 2.1. Later, I did a MPhil, which is a very tough two-year course. I left university and then called on my old tutor about doing a PhD.
He said, "You seem to have everybody out there fooled about your abilities, so I don't think you should come here to demonstrate your manifest limitations."
It was the most wonderful piece of advice.
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