When I was at school, I cannot recall anyone from outside coming to speak to us. Apart from Speech Day, when a dignitary from the town gave an unmemorable and wholly uninspiring talk before handing out the prizes, there was nothing.
The school had been in existence since the Victorian era, yet no former pupils ever visited, and we were not encouraged to meet or have any dialogue with them. The idea of an old boys’ network that could help us in our career choices and later life was anathema.
This was Barrow Grammar School for Boys at Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. A state grammar, it produced good results; every year, large numbers went off to university, usually in the north-west of England, or they entered the local shipyard.
The lack of ambition among school and pupils was mutual. That’s not to say it was not a first-class school – judged on exams and sporting prowess it was – but it was only when I went to university, and rubbed shoulders with those who had been to private schools for the first time did I realise what we’d missed.
They could tap into all manner of contacts that we simply did not possess. Their education had been enhanced by listening to guest speakers. As a result, they’d developed a “can do, will do” attitude. Nothing it seemed was beyond them; everything was viewed as possible.
My school no longer exists. Correction: the old buildings of the boys’ school and the girls’ next door still stand, abandoned and forlorn. They will either be demolished or used for something else (although it is hard to think what, exactly).
Soon after I left, the grammar schools were no more. They were replaced by a comprehensive and sixth form college. Now, the site has been boarded up, and the comprehensive scrapped in favour of a brand new academy. That’s where I went to visit, to Furness Academy and its gleaming, £20-million plus premises.
It’s a superb development. Open and airy, with lots of light, it’s far removed from what we had to endure. It houses up to 1,200 pupils aged 11 to 16, and has all the accoutrements of the 21 century school: IT facilities galore, language labs, superb refectory (our canteen was in a Nissen hut), fully-equipped gym that would do any members’ club proud.
But behind the building lies a short, chequered past. Furness Academy has had a brief, troubled history with, at one stage, the highest exclusion rate among academies in England; and woefully poor GCSE results. This led to Ofsted ordering Special Measures, and the suspension of the principal.
The interim principal, Des Herlihy, was responsible for turning round a failing comp in Oldham. Now, he’s been asked to try and repeat the same trick in Barrow.
Herlihy clearly puts great store by the virtues of discipline and hard work. Indeed, when we chat about my trip beforehand he asks specifically that I stress to the Year 11s I’ll be addressing, that nothing will be given to them, if they want to get on they must put in the hours.
Everywhere round the school there are signs imploring good behaviour. All the pupils are wearing uniform. During breaks and class change overs, teachers are encouraged to be among the children, to be visible, rather than disappear into the staff room – “part of what we call ‘passive supervision’” says Herlihy.
Barrow is an isolated place, at the end of a peninsula, to the south of the Lake District, surrounded by the sea on three sides, 40 minutes from the motorway. “The longest cul de sac in Britain,” is the description afforded locally and nationally to the journey there.
Growing up in that environment there is an “us and them” mentality. While I’m talking to the 15-16 year olds it occurs to me that the only way this mind-set can be broken is if more people like me - who grew up there, shared the same experiences and know exactly what is going through their heads, and who now live away - go back and help.
It’s about getting children to believe in themselves, something independent schools regard as second nature. I speak to the whole year and they’re a brilliant audience: listening, attentive, sparky.
Afterwards, Herlihy and I agree that all they lack is self-belief. Gain that and they can, literally, go anywhere and do anything. Herlihy asks if I will also speak at his former school. There is definitely a crying need. Why should public school pupils be the only ones to benefit?
At Barrow Sixth Form College, the hall is packed. “It’s a good crowd,” murmurs David Batten, the principal. They can’t all want to be journalists, I reply. Some do but the majority, I realise, have turned out to hear a voice they identify with, who was a sixth former once, in Barrow just like them.
They’re determined and motivated – for most of them the Sixth Form College is a stepping stone to university or other form of higher education. But their horizons require lifting.
Their destinations of choice tend to be the nearest northern universities. Again, getting them to think bigger picture is part of the battle.
I was fortunate, in that my headmaster encouraged me to try for Cambridge and I was awarded a place. Too many of my contemporaries, who stood every chance of going to Oxbridge, who, looking back I realise were clever enough, did not even get off first base: they didn’t apply because they felt it was snobby and elitist, southern, and not for them.
Such thinking in fee-paying schools is, of course, abhorrent. There, by hearing from old boys and girls, by sitting at their feet, listening to their stories, tapping them up for the prospect of work experience and internships, they are both fascinated and driven.
The sixth formers’ questions come thick and fast. I’ve spoken at many schools and universities, and this lot are easily in the top league. They want to know about everything – from politics, to world affairs, to finance, to press regulation. Even when I stop, exhausted, and say I’ve a train to catch, there are still hands shooting up, asking more.
They will go far, provided we show them how.