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Meet Bobby Seagull: the east London genius fighting for Britain to love maths

Written by
Salma Haidrani

A love of numbers propelled Bobby Seagull from school in Forest Gate to a City job and ‘University Challenge’. Now he’s trying to use what he’s learned to help others…

‘I grew up in East Ham and went to school in the late ’90s in Forest Gate. It had its challenges, but maths was comforting – if I had a bad day, ran out of milk or got mugged, eight times seven would always be 56.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with thousands of books at home. I owe my dad a lot for my love of learning. He loved the book “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and gave me and my three brothers the surname “Seagull”. Every Saturday after lunch, we would head to East Ham Library and sprawl on the floor for hours reading books on everything from Victorian engineers to economics to the cities of the world. My dad would do some work before we’d head back for the football scores.

In 2000, after spotting an ad in The Times, I won a scholarship to sixth form at Eton. Although I was a state-school student from Newham, I was unfazed about not fitting in – I felt like I’d earned my right to be there. My fellow students believed that they could get to the top of whatever field they entered. It instilled a belief in me that I could make an impact too.

By my early twenties, I was mostly preoccupied with making a lot of money and planning to retire to the Bahamas. I worked as a City trader and later as a chartered accountant for five years. I could buy a nice watch or a suit whenever I wanted. But after a while, I realised that it didn’t give me the self-worth that helping others did.

Towards the end of my time as an accountant, I found myself training new graduates. I enjoyed doing that so much more than the corporate world. So I took the plunge, did a PGCE then an MA in education at Cambridge, and started teaching.

Working in state schools across London has given me a deeper appreciation of the often thankless efforts of teachers. I currently teach back in Newham and I try to make my lessons interesting: once I put on an instrumental track by Drake and performed a maths-based rap to engage a class, which went down well! State-school kids are often stereotyped as not wanting to work hard, go to uni and have good careers, but I’ve found that their optimism is infectious.

In 2016, I won a place as captain of my college’s “University Challenge” team. It was surreal: I remembered watching the programme growing up, hiding behind the sofa in awe at the students who seemed to have so much knowledge. We made it to the semi-finals before getting knocked out. But I was completely unprepared for the positive response to my TV appearances. I remember going into school the next morning and one of my students running up to me, flashing their phone and saying, “Mr Seagull, you’re going viral!” I was described by the BBC as “the happiest contestant ever”, and the experience ended up completely changing my life. I realised I could fight to get Britain to love maths as much as I did.

Half of adults in the UK have the numeracy skills of an 11-year-old, and yet more funding in last year’s Budget was allocated to potholes than to primary schools. It’s been so rewarding to see the impact I’ve had on the kids I teach in London. Now I’m excited to devote the rest of my life to spreading that mission to the whole nation.’

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