What I told my younger self
A transcript of my talk to my former school
I’m fortunate to be asked to give talks in many different countries, including to CEOs, prime ministers and presidents. This week, I was asked to give a talk to a place that means more to me than any of that —my former secondary school.
Verulam is a state secondary boys school that was founded in 1938. It is based in St Albans, Hertfordshire. I attended the school between 1993 and 2000. I thought I’d share the transcript of my talk to the lower sixth students with you while we wait for the final midterm results in America and Rishi Sunak’s autumn budget.
I’d like to thank the school for inviting me to speak to you today. And I’d like to thank you for coming along to listen. This is a strange experience. I feel like I’m looking at myself twenty-five years ago.
I was asked to talk to you about social mobility, which is the link between where we start in life and where we end up. And I would like to do that by telling you a short story about what happened to me and how this school changed my life.
I was born in 1981 and raised in a small terraced house in Park Street, on the outskirts of St Albans. My mother and father both worked in the National Health Service. Neither of them went to university and both of them were working-class.
When I was five and my younger brother was eighteen months old, my parents told us they were getting divorced. It was both the most memorable and the most consequential day of my life. I still think about it a lot today.
Later in life, I would learn that my parents both came from difficult families which meant they struggled with relationships. It is often this way in families, with negative behaviours, habits and challenges cascading down from one generation to the next.
Their divorce had an enormous impact. My mother, who was now responsible for raising two boys, never really recovered. Single mothers are among the strongest people on the planet but it is also true, as the evidence shows, that they are far more likely than mums who live with a partner or a husband to suffer many problems —chronic depression, heightened anxiety, poverty, substance abuse, severe stress, low self-esteem, social isolation and a lack of emotional and financial support.
And these problems then impact on their children. Single parents are more likely to adopt inconsistent, controlling or detached styles of parenting which, in turn, can lead their children to develop serious behavioural problems. Some children externalise these problems by becoming aggressive and acting out; others internalise them by withdrawing from the world and developing a heightened state of anxiety.
My mum did the very best she could and I am immensely proud to say she is my mum. But like many other single mums she suffered many of these things. My brother and I watched her drift in and out of depression, in and out of relationships, and, later, in and out of alcoholism. And that had an enormous impact, especially on my brother.
My brother was only a baby when my parents divorced and so, unlike me, he had no memory at all of what it was like to grow up in a stable home with two parents. He was a quiet child. He too came to this school. And he always looked a little bit lost.
In later years, he tried to fill the glaring hole in our family which left him with an extremely low sense of self-esteem by turning to drugs. He began with alcohol and then moved onto weed, then cocaine, then crack cocaine and then heroin.
My brother is an extreme case but when you look at the evidence on what happens to working-class boys from broken homes his is not a particularly unusual story. Boys who are raised by single mothers are far more likely than children who are raised by two parents in a more stable environment to suffer from a wide array of problems —a lack of parental involvement and emotional support, depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders and, like my brother, drug and alcohol abuse.
Today, there are three million single-parent families in the UK which represent 15 per cent of all families. Britain has some of the highest rates of family breakdown in the Western world. It also has a very large number of children who are born into cohabitating couples, which have been shown to be less stable than married couples. Children who are born into these households are far more likely to see their parents break up by the time they turn twelve years old. The share of children in these households has rocketed from 8% in 1971 to 48% in 2019. Not all of the children in these families will experience these negative effects. But many of them will.
My brother’s addiction, itself a reflection of our broken family, brought total chaos into our lives. One day, around the corner from this school, he was stabbed by drug dealers and airlifted to hospital. Another day, somebody tried to burn down his flat while he was still inside. And on another day, he phoned me and my parents to say if we did not give him money then he would be beaten.
These are extreme experiences but when you become sucked into the world of an addict they become entirely normal and you become desensitised to them. Nothing really shocks you anymore.
Somebody once said it is easier to raise strong children than fix broken men. I think there is a lot of truth to that. No adult should have to recover from their childhood. And yet across the world millions of young men, much like my brother, are trying to do just that.
Over the last decade, he has passed through rehab many times, homeless shelters and therapy but never quite managed to win his battle with addiction which we hope, every day, he does win.
So, what happened to me? I think if I am being honest with you I could easily have followed the same path as my brother and on more than a few occasions I found myself on it. I arrived at this school in 1993 and in the years that followed I struggled. I never applied myself. I drifted around with no sense of purpose. I messed around. I cut corners when corners could be cut. I didn’t really see the point in it all.
By the time I turned sixteen one version of my future self was coming into view. I spent my weekends pushing trolleys at a local supermarket and working at Burger King. And I spent my evenings cleaning the floors of this school after the other kids had gone home. If things hadn’t changed then I would have lived out the rest of my life with little or no social mobility. I would not have progressed beyond where I started out. I might even have gone backwards.
But then, one day, everything did change. They say that one teacher can change your life in a moment and in my experience it’s true. For me, that teacher was Mr Jones and that moment was when I was where you are, in the lower sixth. ‘Let’s be honest’, said Mr Jones at a parents evening, with a look of resignation on his face. ‘Matt’s going nowhere. He’s not applying himself. He's not interested in taking responsibility. He’s wasting everybody’s time. He should leave school and spend his life at Burger King’.
I’m not sure whether a teacher could say that today but at that specific moment, at that specific time in my life, it struck a very loud chord. Boys from single parent households tend to search out male role models and those role models, in turn, can often have a very strong influence on them. I respected Mr Jones. What he said mattered to me.
In the days and weeks that followed it gradually dawned on me that unless I took personal responsibility for my own life then nobody else would. I realised there and then that I wanted to be more than where I came from. So, I went into the final year of my A-levels determined to turn things around. I put in the extra hours. I stopped messing around. And I managed to get some good grades.
When my A-levels were over I set myself a goal. I wanted to be the first person in my family to go to university. I was too late to apply to one of the more prestigious Russell Group universities and so I applied through clearing and went to the University of Salford in Manchester.
Salford is not a great university but it was one that allowed me to begin to fix something else in my life that was broken: my relationship with my father. It was the closest university to where my father lived. So, I packed my bags, turned up at his house and announced that I would now be living with him.
The first term at university was difficult. I hated it. Living off campus made it impossible to make friends. I was lonely and I wanted to leave. So, I set myself another goal —just make it to Christmas.
I did and by that time I had started to make friends through a part-time job. More importantly, I had also started to build a meaningful relationship with my father. We grew closer.
I also found other role models who, at critical points in my journey, nudged me in the right direction. One, a university lecturer named John Garrard, pushed me to consider studying abroad. So, in my second year I went to live in America and then the Czech Republic, just as it was preparing to join the European Union.
It completely opened my horizons, living and studying alongside other young people from around the world. Each weekend, while in Europe, my friends and I jumped on a train to visit one of the great cities —Rome, Venice, Vienna, Prague, Budapest —soaking up the history and culture. It was one of the happiest times of my life.
When I returned to Salford for my final year, John, my mentor, pointed out that I had a chance of graduating with a first-class degree. So, I set myself another goal and I achieved it. Each time I achieved these goals I became more confident, I believed in myself that little bit more.
The key point in all this is that I was beginning to take personal responsibility for my own life. I was beginning to develop a sense of agency and awareness that I could change the direction of my life.
After university, this belief in myself led me to Canada to study for my masters at a university which offered scholarships to international students who could not afford the fees. There too I met a role model who saw something in me and pushed me to be a better version of myself.
My dissertation supervisor, a man named Bruce Morrison, nudged me to think that maybe I could continue on this journey I was on by studying for a PhD, by making a real and original contribution to knowledge. So, that’s what I did.
A few years after that I was appointed lecturer and published my first book. A few years after that I became a full professor. And, more importantly, a few years after that I became a husband and a father, with a chance to repair rather than recreate the cycle of pain and disruption that had passed through successive generations of my family.
I’m not going to lie to you. None of it was easy. At different points in my life the desire to improve, to become socially mobile, clashed with what psychologists call the “compulsion to repeat”, to reenact and repeat the disruptive patterns and behaviours that we learn and internalise while growing up, usually while watching our parents.
I spent much of my twenties and thirties working on these patterns and trying to develop mechanisms for disrupting and addressing them. I was not always successful. I hurt people along the way. It took a considerable amount of therapy —including therapy for relatives of addicts— to begin to get on top of them. And it remains a work in progress.
But throughout all this I was able to become something else —an outlier. If you look at the evidence you will see that working-class boys from broken homes are consistently the most likely to be left behind, to have the lowest levels of social mobility. They are the worst performers in our education system.
They are the least likely to get good GCSE and A-Level grades. They are the least likely to stay in school. They are the least likely to behave and conduct themselves properly when they are in school. They are the least likely to go to university. They are the least likely to stay at university. They are the least likely to graduate with a 2:1 or first class degree. And they are the most likely to be drawn into gangs, criminality and, like my brother, substance abuse.
Increasingly, they are also now being rapidly left behind by their female counterparts, especially girls and women from more economically secure and stable families. Across the West, today, young women are now leaving men behind —in the results they achieve at school, in the rates at which they are going to university, in the quality of the universities they attend, in their likelihood of graduating with a first-class or 2:1 degree, and in the rate at which they are entering the more prestigious managerial and professional jobs. Women are also becoming far more socially liberal than men.
So, why did I become an outlier? Why did my brother end up in a very different place to me? And what does this story tell us about social mobility?
I think a lot about these questions and I have thought a lot more about them as I prepared to come and speak to you today. For me, they raise two key points which i think we routinely downplay or ignore in the debate about what helps or hinders social mobility in modern Britain.
The first is the critical importance of family. Many people don’t like to talk about the role of family and the profound impact the breakdown of families has on children because it is a very difficult thing to talk about. When you do talk about it you can appear judgemental. And families that do break down, including my own, generally don’t like to look in the mirror and face the truth.
But as a society we do need to recognise and talk much more about the fact that the evidence on this topic is crystal clear: family breakdown has disastrous effects.
In Britain and around the world, children who are born into broken homes or who experience family breakdown while they are growing up are consistently more likely than children who are brought up by two parents to experience higher rates of poverty, worse outcomes in their education, health and mental well-being, and to live in unstable homes, often in privately rented or social housing.
And these effects then continue to work themselves through even when the children have grown up. Adults who come from broken homes have been shown to be far more likely than those who come from stable homes to suffer higher rates of unemployment, lower pay, ongoing mental health problems, which usually get worse as they age, and are much less likely to make it into more secure and prestigious professional jobs.
I think there is also a great deal of hypocrisy in how we talk about family. Many of the people who downplay its importance, who say it is a distraction from economics and money, who advocate for more fluid families or feel less attached to the traditional guardrails in society which give people a sense of stability and attachment, including marriage and family, tend to be highly educated, affluent professionals who are themselves married and come from stable homes.
Downplaying the importance of family is an example of what Cambridge academic Rob Henderson calls “luxury beliefs” -beliefs that are promoted by the elite to signal their ideology and social status to other elites but which cost the elite much less than they cost other people in society.
The professional graduates who dominate our national debate and are sniffy about the role marriage and family play usually marry other highly educated affluent professionals, are the most likely to have children within a stable marriage, are the least likely to have a child on their own, are more likely to have a child later in life when they have accumulated more resources, and are the least likely of all groups to split up and get divorced.
About 70 per cent of university-educated women are married when they have their first child; but only 17 per cent of less well educated women are. People who casually proclaim that things like family life and marriage are not important to people’s outcomes are not only married themselves but routinely underestimate the effect that weakening marriage and family norms has on people who have fewer resources and who rely more heavily on these guardrails.
So, let me be clear. Family is critically important. We need to be able to say that loudly as a society, we need governments to promote strong families and provide them with very real incentives to stay together and we need to push back, strongly, against those who say otherwise.
I think family is also one reason why my brother and I have followed very different paths. I was slightly older when my parents divorced and in later years I managed, just about, to retain and repair a relationship with my father. It was certainly not easy but being that little bit closer with my father and having those older male role models who at critical moments in my life nudged me in the right direction did give me at least some of the warmth, emotional support and guidance that my brother and millions of other boys like him do not have and desperately want to have. I often wonder where I would be were it not for Mr Jones, John Garrard and Bruce Morrison. And I wonder where my brother would be had he had similar male role models in his life.
Which brings me to what I think is the second key point we downplay in the debate about social mobility —how to encourage children, especially young boys, to develop a strong sense of personal responsibility.
The blunt reality is that we now live in a culture where many of the people who dominate this culture, who dominate the media, the schools, the universities and politics, are continually trying to distract you from the need to take personal responsibility for your own lives.
Celebrities, influencers and even teachers routinely tell you that you are merely a prisoner of the circumstances into which you were born. You are encouraged to think much more about your rights than your responsibilities. You are urged to blame “the system” or “power structures” for your failures. And you are told, continually, that you are a “victim” —that if you are poor, working-class or from a minority group then you face enormous if not insurmountable barriers so you might as well quit now because you have no agency of your own.
The American writer Thomas Sowell once said the great escape of our time is the attempt to escape from the personal responsibility for the consequences of our own behaviour. Let me say that again. The great escape of our time is escape from the personal responsibility for the consequences of our own behaviour.
I think this is what is happening to millions of young boys today. Born into broken homes, in a culture that is increasingly eroding the guardrails that once gave people a sense of belonging and stability, with too much freedom and few if any role models to nudge them in the right direction, they are simply not being shown how to take responsibility. In turn, they are unable to grasp the sense of meaning, purpose and direction that flows through this personal responsibility.
How might you assume a greater sense of personal responsibility in your lives? Somebody once said that if you want to become a better version of yourself then you should spend less time comparing yourself to others and more time comparing yourself to who you were yesterday. Imagine, for example, what you could become if you spent a few minutes each day thinking about how to be a little bit better than yesterday —a better student, a better friend, a better son. Over time, like compound interest, those improvements add up to somebody who is truly insightful, powerful and great.
I also think it’s useful to think about who you want to be tomorrow, to think about what you owe your future self. You might not want to think about it but there will be another version of you, twenty-five years from now, that looks a bit like me. You will be forty, you may have a family, you may have a job you love or hate. And you will have responsibilities both to yourself and those around you.
I’d like you to think about a few questions on the way home today. What do you owe that person? What would that person tell you to do to give them and the people who rely on them the best life possible? And what would they tell you not to do? Reflecting on these questions, in my experience, helps you to set goals. And achieving those goals, as I say, fuels your sense of confidence and agency.
The reason why I started to fall off the tracks when I was at this school is because I never thought about those questions. I never thought about who I could become if I took what so few other people in my life had taken: responsibility. It was only when I was pushed to think about these questions, when I really began to think about them, that I finally began to overcome where I was from and experience true social mobility.
Not every story about social mobility needs to be a rags to riches story about a school dropout making it to Oxbridge or a waiter becoming a CEO. These are wonderful stories and we should certainly celebrate them. But I think we should spend just as much time helping people move past things that might be much less glamorous but are just as important.
Ensuring that children get the best possible start in life, moving the family into the very centre of our national and policy debate, providing children from our rapidly rising number of broken homes with role models and far more proactive support, being unafraid to challenge conventional wisdoms that work well for elites but much less well for everybody else and dismantling narratives that erode your sense of self-esteem and agency are all useful starting points in my view.
Everybody's social mobility story will be different. We should be wary of people who tell us there is only model of success, which usually involves leaving home, going to a Russell Group university and joining the professional class so you can look and sound more like them.
For me, social mobility was ultimately about finding my way to a life which the sixteen or seventeen year old version of me might look at and think ‘that’s a pretty good result’. And for you, I hope very much that in the years and decades ahead you also manage to find your way to a place where you are able to say the same. Thank you for your time today and best wishes for the journey ahead.