“Pick up the phone,” the admissions tutor said. “How would you describe this coffee mug to aliens on the other end of the line?” It was a crisp winter afternoon in the first week of December 2000. The corner room high in St John's College looked out over the Cambridge Backs, where shivering tourists were being punted beneath the willows. Six months earlier I had bungled my Year 12 exams, scoring a U in my English module on Chaucer and William Blake, and not much better in French and History.
How do you go from that to sitting in a don's large, panelled study, being interviewed to read Politics at one of Britain's oldest colleges?
The answer is that my aspirations were suddenly raised, age 17. I got lucky: my history teacher Mr Lewis stopped me applying for media studies and drilled home the names of Cambridge, Bristol, Nottingham, UEA, Birmingham, Manchester in the weeks before the autumn deadline for applying to university. I had never considered Oxbridge, wrongly assuming it to be populated by double-barrelled cello players from Winchester, and knuckle-dragging Kiwis with prowess in the line-out but a questionable interest in land economy.
"Did you receive any coaching for this interview?" the tutor at St John's asked me, as he entertained the prospect of gifting this oik from the Chilterns one of four places to study the Social and Political Sciences tripos. I lied and said no. (Mr Lewis had dragged me in at lunchtimes to "talk over current affairs".)
Our school in Leighton Buzzard, a medieval market town in Bedfordshire that has suffered from the growth of nearby Milton Keynes, never sent many people to Oxbridge (not that doing so is a measure of very much, anyway). But it was solid, with good teachers who cared. Most of us didn't know what we wanted to do with our lives though. We hadn't met anyone whose job we would like. I recall completing a long computer questionnaire in the careers office which spat out the suggestion: "Waste Treatment Plant Manager". (No snide comments about journalism, please…) A straw poll in i's office yesterday identified similarly peculiar career advice – one of the news editors, Rob, was told to become a lighthouse keeper. I'm sure readers have their own odd examples.
Last week, 12 years after I'd walked out of Cedars Upper School without a glance over my shoulder, I went back for the first time. It was spooky; the same but different. I was there to talk to 130 sixth-formers about jobs and life beyond the school gates.
Why did I bother? Well, i is launching a "Back to School" campaign with the social enterprise charity Future First, to encourage more people who went to state schools – from all trades and professions, whether they left education at 16 or 36 – to return and speak to students at their old school. The charity already has 50,000 ex-pupils on its Back to School network; we want to build on that progress.
We've all heard how tricky the jobs market is for young people leaving school or uni. We also know that public schools invite speakers in to address their students all the time. Fee-paying schools are very successful at staying in touch with their old pupils – and these alumni then help to inspire students, raise aspirations, give practical careers advice and even arrange work experience.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if something like that could happen in Britain's state schools? If it wasn't the preserve of a private education? Level the playing field a bit?
Well, the good news is that state schools can emulate the success of the private sector here. Indeed, some state schools already are, either independently – or with the help of charities like Future First, which matchmakes a school with its former pupils who have signed up online. Over the next few days we'll hear from state headteachers who are taking great pride in working more closely with their old students, bringing them back to speak to teenagers. Hairdressers, doctors, plumbers, authors, social workers, barristers, chefs, musicians… all of them offering insight beyond the formal curriculum.
For some people, the idea of returning to their old school is nightmarish. Fans of Alan Partridge will remember that disastrous visit to his alma mater. I was nervous about going back to Cedars. Would 16- and 17-year-olds really want to hear from me for two hours? Sounds like third prize in a bad raffle.
I need not have worried. The hall was packed. Five minutes in, a hand shot up. "How can I become a war correspondent?" We were off.
Future First sends "facilitators" to help run sessions, be they for small groups or large assemblies. At Cedars, Debbie Penglis, a former head of psychology who now works for our partner charity, directed things with enthusiasm and military precision.
Most of the sixth-formers didn't want to be journalists. Instead they'd come to listen to someone who grew up down the road, who sat in front of the same teachers, drank at the same pubs, and somehow got out. They are keenly aware of the scramble for jobs and the cost of getting a degree.
I told a few colourful stories about the Olympics and London bombings, the near-deaths of various overseas colleagues and how I got to meet Arsene Wenger. But the rest of the session we turned over to their questions – and they had a lot. (For a flavour, see the Cedars sixth-formers' list below this article.)
They came up with media strategies for a campaign. A Lord Kitchener-style poster with students pointing: "Your old school needs you! Inspire the next generation today." Or: "Revisit your past. Help our future." The bell went for break.
Many of my contemporaries were cleverer and quicker than me, but never received the encouragement and practical help I did. When I was 15, bumbling around, unsure of what to do with my life, we received a visit at school from Mick King, the news editor of the Leighton Buzzard Observer. He urged a few of us to submit articles, and went on to print half a dozen of mine. When I recently threw out my archived newspapers, they were the only press cuttings I kept. Looking back, I remember how exciting it was to talk to a real journalist, and then to see my name in print. Without his encouragement it's doubtful I would have caught the bug. Thanks Mick.
Visit ind.pn/backtoschool for more information
What sixth formers at Cedars Upper School want to know from ex-pupils:
How did you get to what you are doing now?
What do you know now that you wish you knew at A-level?
Is going to university necessary?
Does anyone in your field get a job through apprenticeships for school-leavers?
How hard did you have to work?
Are you a peasant or minted?
What was the hardest obstacle?
How did this school help you?
What A-level grades did you get?
Did A-levels get easier? And are they useful in your job now?
Did your A-levels define what your career is?
Do good grades help with your future happiness?
Why isn't there a proper page 3 in i?
What is the best thing about your job?
How do you get work experience?
Do you have any enemies at work?
Do you get good holiday?
How do you know what subjects to take if you don't know what job you want to do?
When did you decide on a career?
Is your job stressful?
What is the male:female ratio in your field?
How did you decide what career path you wanted, and how did you know where to start?
What would make our CVs stand out to you?
Are you entirely on your own when you leave school, or is there support?
What qualifications are required for your role?
Do you witness any white-collar crime?
Did you do any extra-curricular activities that helped you compete?
If you could start again from sixth-form, what would you do differently?
If you were in our position, what would you do?
(Thanks to Alex, Georgia, Jack, Vix, Lucy, Emma, Jordan, the Harveys, Zackery, Lauren and the rest of the team.)