Robert Peston is a journalist, author, TV presenter and founder of the education charity Speakers for Schools, a network of influential speakers and businesses providing inspiring talks and high quality work experience placements for state school pupils. He has received an honorary doctorate from LSBU in recognition of his exceptional contribution to levelling the playing field and creating opportunities for all.
Speakers for Schools was born out of my own personal experience. Back in 2006/07, I was making waves talking about the impending financial crisis. That raised my profile, and I started getting invitations to speak in schools. But they all came from fee-paying schools – precisely the kind I didn’t go to myself. Of course there’s nothing wrong with private schools wanting to provide those opportunities for their pupils – but why shouldn’t the same apply to state school pupils?
Part of the problem was that teachers in state schools just didn’t think that someone like me would say ‘yes’. There were practical reasons too –they’re often wrestling with a huge workload, and may not have a good network of contacts. But they were interested, really interested. I did a quick ring round of people I knew to see if they’d be willing to speak in a state school, for free, and only one out of a hundred or so said they were too busy. It felt like the start of something that could be really useful.
Last year, we delivered 1200 talks, 70% of them outside London. There are other charities in this space, but I think there are two things that make us unique. One is the sheer range of speakers we have, everything from scientists to actors to writers as well as business people, lawyers, doctors and academics. And the other is the care we put into matching speakers with schools, to make sure we get the best possible fit.
Work experience placements are an increasingly important part of what we do. We’re now working with around 70 businesses to offer genuinely valuable placements to state school kids, particularly those in more deprived areas. We work really hard to make sure they’re worthwhile – no tea-making! The kids love it because they’re getting properly involved, meeting people, and learning loads, and the businesses love it because they’re getting kids who’re genuinely motivated and curious, and who aren’t just there because someone’s pulled some strings.
When you give a talk the kids always want to know how much you earn. That’s fine – it’s only natural for them to be curious about that. But the speakers very often come back and say that the kids have asked questions that have made them take a step back and look at their careers in a different way. A lot of them tell us it’s one of the most satisfying things they do.
We’ve been an independent charity since 2012, and now we’re moving into a new phase. We’ve been very lucky to have the support of one generous individual, Andrew Law, who also became our chair, but looking ahead we need to find funds from other sources to support our plans for expansion. We’re looking to rapidly treble the number of top-quality work placements we offer from the 1300 we’ll achieve this academic year, and of course we’re always looking to match new speakers with schools.
The impact of what we do can only really be measured in the long term – but I’m absolutely convinced it’s worthwhile. We didn’t have inspirational talks at my state school but since I started this, I’ve met so many people who’ve told me how so-and-so came to their school and it changed their life. It’s very hard to measure that empirically, but there’s no doubt it has an impact in terms of broadening horizons and raising aspirations. My attitude is, the fee-paying schools include lists of speakers in their brochures and websites, and no one questions its value to those pupils. So why should anyone question its value to state schools?
Who’s my dream speaker? That’s a hard one! We’re looking for people with a story to tell and if they’ve had to overcome some challenges to get where they are, so much the better. If you really pushed me I’d have to say Beyoncé. She’s such an amazing combination of businesswoman and artist, and a great role model.
I believe passionately that there’s more to education than what’s on the curriculum. You need a wider view of human history, a broader perspective on what’s going on the world. And you need to hear from individuals who may well have been to the same kind of school as you and who can say to you – convincingly – if you aim high, you can achieve anything you want. One of the things fee-paying schools are so good at is giving pupils self-belief, and encouraging them to aim high. I don’t think that should be the preserve of those who can afford to pay for their education.