15 October 2017
You might have seen from recent posts that I have been out in Morocco with my wife Gail on a challenge to help raise money and awareness for a charity called Big Change which does extraordinary work in education in the UK.
Big Change is the brainchild of Holly and Sam Branson and it is already making a significant difference, with the government putting £50m into one of their pilot schemes. The charity holds an annual challenge called STRIVE and they are notoriously tough. One year they set off from Verbier, walked across the mountain ranges and scaled the Matterhorn. Only three out of the whole group made it, it was that tough. Last year they cycled across the whole length of Italy before swimming across the sea to Sicily and if that wasn’t daft enough, they then climbed Mount Etna. I couldn’t take part because it was around the time that our daughter Summer being born. So, earlier this year in March in Verbier, Switzerland at another fundraising event, relaxed after a couple of glasses of wine, I “foolishly” committed to join them on their quest.
I say foolishly tongue in cheek as it is a worthy cause, something close to my heart, it was just going to be a tough week!
Without doubt, I have been very lucky in my life when it comes to schooling. I got a scholarship at 7 years of age, to board and sing at Durham Cathedral. It was a huge honour and it gave me access to some incredible experiences. At 13, when my voice broke, my parents tried to continue private school education and managed until I was 16 but couldn’t afford to keep this up after that. So I made the choice to move away from home and headed to Salford.
I got a taste of college life in a well respected college De La Salle. I don’t think it’s there any more. The difference in the education I’d experienced in early life was just light years apart from when I attempted my A Levels.
What I realised is that it’s the teachers and key figures in your life that get you through these tough times in education. Without a role model in Salford and zero guidance, I failed dismally. I can’t blame the school: I just didn’t have people around me to support me through it like I’d had in earlier life.
To make matters worse, I was very dyslexic. Not something I knew or understood then. I’d always struggled to read and write as well as my other classmates and I was left to my own devices, to fail. And fail I did, with the BBC now wheeling me out most years to talk about my grades on results day to give youngsters confidence that it is not all doom and gloom if you do as badly as me!
Looking back I have been very lucky indeed to go from a complete failure to a very successful businessman. It’s a miracle and a few of my teachers would agree.
Without doubt, my schooling in the early days set me up to give me the chances I have had. But it is not the school itself that has made the difference, it’s the teachers within them that count. Just a handful that took me under their wing to ensure I just about kept up with the others, giving me the belief and encouragement necessary to persevere.
One of the problems in my state school experience is that the class sizes were so much bigger that its impossible for teachers to really get to know you and care about each and every one of the kids on the journey. Many teachers may disagree with this, but consider what you might be able to do if you halved the class sizes.
This is just one observation of some of the many differences, but really what doesn’t sit well with me is that there are any differences at all. Why should I or others be any luckier than some other kid. My parents got themselves in to huge financial debt to give me the best start they could, and this is not right either.
So, now it’s time to make a difference.
And yes, it starts with building our own school, a state sponsored school that I am going to ensure delivers education that rivals the top public schools. But this is only one, and whilst we want to build more, what else can we do?
This is where BIG CHANGE comes in. Set up to look at best practice and fund amazing schemes that clearly make a difference, this is a charity that is close to my heart.
With about a month to go before flying to Morocco, Gail decided to join me and whilst we both keep ourselves fit, neither of us had done enough cycling. We’d done a little bit in the run up before but it was nowhere near enough for the type of event we had signed up for.
The STRIVE: Morocco challenge was split into two halves. The first involved cycling to the foothills of the Atlas mountains and the second was to climb 4200m to the top of Mount Toubkal, straight after the cycle. Realistically, either challenge would have been fine on their own but to join the two, with a lack of cycling preparation on top, was going to be painful!
It’s been an amazing experience. Not least for raising around £700,000 in the week, but just meeting so many people also passionate to make a difference like myself and Gail.
The challenge also reminded me that when you are outside your comfort zone it’s the people around you that pull you through. Just like school, just like the mentoring we are doing with Tech Manchester. Just like the amazing schemes that BIG CHANGE supports.
I have been overwhelmed with how generous my friends are and people supporting us. People who don’t have money to give away contributing.
That’s what is special about our community. Thank you to everyone of you for your support and I look forward to sharing some of the stories in due course.