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Speakers For Schools: BBC's Robert Peston On A Mission To Inspire State School Kids - With A Little Help From His Friends

14/10/2013 22:29 | Updated 22 May 2015

BBC's Robert Peston inspires state school youngsters with his high-profile speakers from business and mediaRex/PA

Back in 1979, I was a typical bored, restless teenager at a Manchester comprehensive school.

The future seemed an eternity away and so I messed about in lessons and found myself being suspended from school a couple of times for answering back to teachers who didn't inspire me.

Then one Friday morning, the editor of my local newspaper visited our school to give a 'talk'.

He described his job with such contagious enthusiasm and passion that I ran after him into the school car park and begged him to let me work on his newspaper during my holidays. For free.

Five years later, after getting my A-levels, graduating from journalism college and completing several more work experience stints, I got a full-time job on that newspaper.

I have been a journalist ever since (even if these days, I combine working from home with being a house dad to three children) and I look back to that inspirational visit as the moment my future was determined.

My experience was rare. How many state schools facilitate such motivational visits? It was a question that troubled the BBC's Business Editor Robert Peston.

What he found was that fee-paying private schools were falling over themselves to invite speakers from the world of business and politics to inspire their students – but very few state schools seemed inclined.

Peston told Parentdish.co.uk:

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For me it really matters that those who go to comprehensives should have the same advantages as those who go to Eton, Westminster and Harrow.

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And so Robert, a former comprehensive schoolboy himself, decided to do something about it.

He used the contacts he'd made over 25 years as a reporter to set up Speakers4Schools, a charitable body that 'matchmakes' schools to prominent and inspiring speakers.

His organisation now has 700 speakers on its books, who offer to give an inspiring talk a year - for free - to schools that would normally not be able to afford such a service.

Now, young people at state schools throughout the country can have access to the motivational insights from luminaries as successful and high profile as Bill Gates, David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband, Martha Lane Fox, George Alagiah, Emily Maitlis, Gary Kemp, Joanna Trollope, plus many great thinkers, writers, business leaders, politicians, actors, sports stars, entertainers, and journalists.

The experience has made an impact, both on the pupils and the speakers.

Microsoft mogul Bill Gates said after his visit to Depford Green School in London: "It was an inspiring morning, and I enjoyed hearing from the students regarding their ideas on how to tackle global poverty. Speakers for Schools is a great initiative, and it was pleasure being able to connect and engage with young people in London".

Christine Sydenham, Headteacher at the Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls in Ealing, West London, says: "The girls realise that highly successful people are actually people just like them. They see that for successful people background isn't the thing that defines them.

"They've had to overcome challenges, work hard, be determined and resilient. If the girls can relate to the challenges, that really is inspirational. They realise that their ambitions are achievable – and often that they should be aiming higher."

And Kathleen Higgins, the Head at Altwood Church of England School says: "When you have students enthused, inspired, feeling like they really matter and learning something new at the same time, then this is education at its best, and this is what the 'Speakers for Schools' programme clearly provides."

"This inspiration is not what I experienced in the 1970s at the comp I attended, Highgate Wood School in Crouch End, north London," Robert Peston told Parentdish.co.uk.

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I can't remember anyone of prominence ever coming to my school. Maybe that did not do us any harm – but, as a passionate believer in comprehensive education, it seems to me that what's good enough for Eton is good enough for comprehensives.

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"I support comprehensives in much the same way as I support Arsenal Football Club, with intense passion and a desire for comprehensives to be seen as winners.

"Not only do I feel that I derived enormous benefit from my comprehensive school years, in that they gave me an understanding of the world that no selective school would have been able to do (or so I believe), but my wife Sian and I never dreamed that either of our boys would be educated anywhere but at a comprehensive.

"Why should comp kids not hear me blathering on about economic mess we are in, if my thoughts about this are regarded as worth hearing by public schools?"

With this passionate belief running through his veins, Robert seized the opportunity to make a difference when his profile became more prominent because of his on-screen job for the BBC.

"For better or ill, in 2007 people started noticing me - I became more conspicuous - largely thanks to my journalism on the banking crisis for the BBC," he explained.

"One manifestation of my visibility is that I began to receive invitations from schools to give talks to their students.

"What I found odd - and, to be honest, a bit depressing - is that most of the invitations came from leading fee-paying schools, and not from the kind of state comprehensive school that educated me.

"Some of the invitations came directly from the students themselves, those who ran assorted clubs and societies at the prominent independent school.

"And to my amazement, these incredibly confident kids rather implied that they were doing me a favour by inviting me. It was plain to me that the boys of Eton, for example, took for granted that the most powerful, interesting and brainy people would talk to them.

"I did a bit of research, and unsurprisingly learned that comprehensives rarely ask prominent individuals to give talks to their kids for the obvious reasons that they lack the contacts and confidence of fee-paying schools.

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A light bulb went on in my head. It occurred to me that in a career of 25 years in journalism, I have got to know thousands of fascinating people who are capable of inspiring young people.

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"So for schools lacking the resources to approach such prominent individuals, perhaps I could play the role of matchmaker. And of course the internet would make the matchmaking easier and cheaper.

"I came up with the name Speakers for Schools, and then had a number of lucky breaks. I was put in touch with the charity, the Education and Employers Taskforce, which has very generously helped me to turn an idea into a practical reality.

"The Taskforce provides administration for Speakers for Schools, which sits under its charitable umbrella.

"We've now recruited around 700 speakers, all of them leaders in their fields, and all of whom are committed to give at least one talk each year to a state secondary school (they can of course give as many as they like).

"I have been amazed by the generosity of those who have signed up to speak, in the sense that many of them have helped us obtain additional speakers from their own networks of friends and contacts."

He added: "If you go to website, www.speakers4schools.org, you will see the incredible range of talent we can offer to state schools.

"There are great thinkers, writers, business leaders, politicians, actors, sports stars, entertainers, journalists and so on.

"All our speakers have agreed to give talks for nothing, including paying for their own travel expenses.

"What I hope we can achieve is just a bit of levelling of the playing field between state schools and public schools.

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Speakers for Schools is about exciting students in a way that encourages them to aim high in a career sense or an academic sense. It is about delivering a message that with hard work and application, they can achieve great things.

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"It is about giving state school students access to big ideas that are not on the curriculum.

"More than anything else, Speakers for Schools is about telling students – especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds – that they are highly valued by individuals who - rightly or wrongly - are viewed as successful."

Robert's project is partnered with Inspiring the Future, a new free service which will see people from all sectors and professions volunteering to go into state schools and colleges to talk about their jobs, careers, and the education routes they took.

Everyone from CEOs to apprentices can volunteer for Inspiring the Future. Recent graduates, school leavers and people in the early stages of their career can be inspirational to teenagers - being close in age they are easy to relate to; while senior and recently retired staff have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share.

• Registration is now open for Inspiring the Future at www.inspiringthefuture.org

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