I recall walking to my secondary school one day. I can remember the exact spot on that journey where it occurred to me that I would like to study physics at Cambridge. It was where I left a road and turned right into an alleyway. I remember thinking that Newton was at Cambridge, he was a great physicist and so it would be great to study physics there.
I hadn’t really gained this insight at school. My dad was an engineer and so questions and storytelling at home had led to this train of thought. My school was a bit of a tough place. It had recently gone through some bad times but it had a relatively new headteacher who was determined to sort things out. However, part of this strategy was to jump on new initiatives. My school was pushing all students through the new Double Science GCSE whilst the neighbouring schools all still retained separate science.
However, I loved my science lessons. I had a good teacher. I can’t remember as much about maths. The only thing that really stands out was being taught quadratic equations for the first time in the final lesson before GCSE study leave. It was only likely to be one question on the exam, so the thinking went, and so I could get it wrong and still get an A grade.
The schools in Dudley at that time did not have sixth forms and so I went on to a sixth form college. In a past life, it had been a grammar school and still retained a traditional feel.
I started out badly. I hadn’t a clue what was going on in chemistry class. I just didn’t know any of the words my teachers were using. In maths, I was on a D grade. So I made a decision. From Monday to Thursday I would do two hours of work each evening, whether I had homework to fill that time or not.
My sixth form had an Oxford and Cambridge club for those thinking of applying. I didn’t join. That would be absurd. I focused on my studies.
At the end of the lower sixth we had a series of exams in all of our subjects. I did quite well. My chemistry teacher asked if I had considered applying to Oxbridge. I froze a little. She suggested that I go on a trip that was running to the open day and then promptly organised this before I could object. I still feel emotional about this.
I then went to maths class. Mr Hill, the old, crusty head of maths appeared at the door and asked if any students were thinking of applying to Oxford or Cambridge. Well, I had to raise my hand now. He marched us down the hallway to where the maths results were posted. “Point to where you are,” he said. I pointed at my name. “Third in the year,” he noted, “that’s OK.”
In the October of the upper sixth I made my application. The story of this process is for another day but, in short, I got into Cambridge and was able to pursue my dream of studying physics there. I was the only student from my sixth form to do so that year. I have my chemistry teacher to thank but also a system of A Levels where I had a whole year to find my feet.