Robert Peston and the serious business of bringing movers and shakers to inspire school pupils

BBC business editor Robert Peston has a new project, a matchmaking service for comprehensives and inspirational speakers. Sheena Hastings reports.

BACK in 2007, Robert Peston suddenly became a lot more noticeable. His reporting on the banking crisis that led to the credit crunch, particularly his scoop on the fall of Northern Rock, won him admirers and accolades aplenty.

Always a busy man, since his first string of reports on the credit crunch, Peston seems to have been omnipresent. During the current eurozone crisis, whatever time of day or night we switch on BBC radio or television, the man who needs little sleep seems to be there, cogitating on fast-changing events as the tectonic plates of the world’s economy shudder and shift.

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Already blogging with Peston’s Picks shortly after 6am each day, in recent years he has found himself much in demand from many quarters to give his perspective on the world of business. Many of the requests are from schools.

“What I’ve found depressing is that most of the invitations are from leading fee-paying schools, not the kind of state comprehensive that educated me.”

He grew up in north London, the son of economist Maurice (originally from an Eastern European emigré family and now the Labour peer Lord Peston of Mile End) and his NHS administrator wife Helen, who filled the house with books and passionately believed in state education.

The precociously bright Robert went to Highgate Wood in Crouch End, a former secondary modern. At the age of 12 he decided he wanted to study at Balliol College, Oxford – and that’s just what he did.

He turns down the invitations from independent schools. “If you look at the yearbook of Eton, say, it lists an astonishing array of inspirational speakers who visit the school each year. From Lord Heseltine to Ken Livingstone, the Anglican Bishop of Baghdad, heads of global businesses and the national organiser of the British Communist Party – the list is long and impressive.

“The letters from such schools are often from the students themselves, and they confidently imply that I am rather lucky to be invited.”

Peston has asked around among high-profile names in his glittering contacts book, and found that leading journalists, captains of industry, academics and others seen as inspirational speakers rarely receive invitations from state schools. This led him to a light bulb moment and he decided that what was good enough for Eton and Harrow was good enough for a comprehensive.

The former stockbroker who became a journalist via Investors’ Chronicle and went on to write for the Independent, Independent on Sunday, and for nine years the Financial Times where he was variously political editor, banking editor, head of the investigations unit and financial editor, decided to milk his own connections made during 25 years in journalism to provide a service offering speakers, for free, to state schools.

“I went to an ordinary school that was also amazing in many ways, “ says Peston, who has also written important books including Who Runs Britain? and the Gordon Brown biography Brown’s Britain.

“It matters greatly to me that those who go to comprehensives should have the same benefit as those who go to independent schools.

“If my thoughts on the economic mess we’re in are considered worthy of being heard by public schools, then why shouldn’t state schools hear me blathering on about it? I’ve nothing against public schools, but they don’t need me.”

Appointing himself as matchmaker, and coining the name Speakers for Schools, Peston was put in touch with the Education and Employers’ Taskforce charity, which helped to bring his idea to fruition by providing administration for the S4S.

Plundering that famous contacts book, Peston has so far signed up 700-odd speakers from across a wide spectrum of British public life. They are all committed to giving at least one talk a year at a state school, without payment and covering their own expenses.

Thinkers, writers, scientists, politicians, educationalists, entertainers, sports stars, media movers and shakers and business leaders are all there, reading and willing to travel about the country and meet young people.

All three main political party leaders have jumped in early – although the talks are not allowed to be party political, but rather the kind of thing that will encourage school pupils to aim high and widen the scope of their ambitions.

Schools apply and outline which subject area they might like a speaker to come from, and S4S matches them to a suitable person from the list.

The line-up includes politicians from Ed Balls to Sayeeda Warsi, a host of BBC journalists, presenters and executives, former Royal Ballet principal dancer Deborah Bull, London 2012 Olympics boss Lord Coe, Jarvis Cocker, advertising executive Maurice Saatchi, boss of Pearson media group Marjorie Scardino and the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips. There are also top-level scientists.

Barely anyone Peston has invited to join the list has said no, and already there are hundreds of schools queueing up to host a well-known speaker.

“When I’ve asked teachers in the past about why they don’t ask me or some other well-known person to speak at their school, they say that they assume I would say no.

“On the couple of occasions when I have talked to pupils at a state school I have really enjoyed it, and I think they have too.

“The kids ask really bright, thoughtful and penetrating questions that serious adults sometimes don‘t,” says Peston, whose sons are at a north London comprehensive.

“I went along to see Nick Clegg talking at an all-girls school in Camberwell the other day, and they were a great audience, asking tough questions which included ‘Why don’t people like you value people like us?’

“If someone like that bothers to go along and talk to pupils then the message is, actually, that these kids do matter.

“The overriding message of Speakers for Schools is that we value state school pupils very much indeed and they deserve inspiration and encouragement as much as those who go to public schools.

“In any school, if you get even one kid to think about the idea of being a physicist or engineer, then it’s well worth it. The speakers have personal stories to tell that show youngsters that all sorts of people fulfil all sorts of dreams.”