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High flyer

After achieving nationwide fame on University Challenge and establishing a fruitful partnership with quiz rival Eric Monkman, Bobby Seagull has become a tireless advocate for numeracy and maths education – and, he tells William Ham Bevan, a strong believer in the ACA.

In University Challenge, hesitation is one of the only cardinal sins (“If you buzz, you must answer”). ICAEW is somewhat more forgiving than Jeremy Paxman – and at this April’s new members’ ceremony Bobby Seagull was formally admitted as an ACA more than seven years after fulfilling his academic requirements. “I had some amusing conversations,” he says. “People would ask, ‘Did you pass the exams last year or the year before,’ and I’d say, ‘Actually, it was November 2011.’ I’d had to look up some of my old emails and work reports, get my old timesheets and dig out all the forms. But it’s worth it. I worked hard to get that qualification.”

The delay is entirely forgivable. Since his days as a trainee at PwC, Seagull’s life has been turned upside down. In 2014, he made the leap from accountancy into education, embarking on a PGCE qualification at Hughes Hall, Cambridge. After starting work at East London Science School, he enrolled in Emmanuel College to do a part-time Masters, and became captain of its University Challenge team for the 2016/17 season. Despite never having watched an episode of the BBC Two quiz before, Seagull powered his team to a place in the semi-finals. As the series progressed, his enthusiasm, knowledge and skill on the buzzer won him a keen following on social media – one rivalled only by the other breakout character of the series, Eric Monkman of Wolfson College.

It reached a peak when their two Cambridge teams finally clashed on 27 March. Wolfson pipped Emmanuel, only to lose to Balliol, Oxford, in the final; but by then, Monkman and Seagull’s celebrity stretched far beyond Twitter and Facebook. He says: “The public got very excited – it was one of the most-watched matches of University Challenge. We had celebrities like Louis Theroux and Stephen Fry commenting about the match. And then the next day, we were on The One Show. There were articles in The Guardian and the Telegraph... it just snowballed.”

Seagull grew up in East Ham, and still lives there. He is the second of four brothers – all Oxbridge alumni – and the unusual surname was his father’s creation. “His surname is actually Jose, as in José Mourinho,” he says. “My family is originally from Kerala in South India. There’s a Portuguese connection there, and a lot of people have Catholic and Portuguese names. But he was inspired by the 1970s novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull, about a bird who defied normal avian routines and found a greater meaning in life, and named me Seagull.

“Having been given that surname has always made me feel like I’ve got to live up to it – it’s almost like nominative determinism. And it was useful when I was in primary school. Dinner ladies would sometimes say, ‘Bobby, you can go to the front of the queue. We love your surname!’” His secondary school was St Bonaventure’s in Forest Gate. It was the headmastership of Sir Michael Wilshaw, and his strict, aspirational ethos, that helped foster Seagull’s love of knowledge – as did Saturdays spent in East Ham library with his brothers.

He recalls: “My dad used to take us there after lunch. We’d sprawl on the floor, just reading everything: books on Aztec civilisation or Victorian engineering, or sometimes Roald Dahl. There was no objective. It was just reading for reading’s sake. The curiosity I’ve always had in my life stems from those Saturdays at the local library. We’d leave at about 4.30 to get back in time for final football scores – probably to see West Ham lose.” Seagull successfully applied for a sixth-form scholarship at Eton College, which he “absolutely loved”.

After A-levels, he spent the summer volunteering as a youth worker in Muirhouse, one of Edinburgh’s most deprived neighbourhoods. He also had his first brush with accountancy on a gap year at KPMG. His subsequent journey through higher education wasn’t entirely smooth. One year into a maths degree at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Seagull feared he was heading for a degree class that wasn’t a true reflection of his ability. He decided to start from scratch at Royal Holloway, University of London, and left with a 2.1 in maths and economics in 2007. An internship at Lehman Brothers led to the offer of a job as an equities trader – a position he would not occupy for long. “It’s like that film, Sliding Doors,” he says.

“Had Lehman not gone bust on 15 September 2008, I think I’d probably still be there. I’ve got two siblings who work in banking and they’ve both stayed in the same firm since graduation. My family are like that. If we do something, we generally stick with it if we can. “After Lehman collapsed, I became more flexible in my career thinking. Bear Stearns had gone under and we had the run on Northern Rock, so suddenly banking didn’t feel like the right place to be in the long term. “My father is a chartered accountant – he qualified in India – and he’d always been extolling the virtues of the profession, which is why I’d done nine months of my gap year working for KPMG. So I decided to join PwC, and started with them in the September 2009 intake.”

Between working with clients and studying for the ACA, Seagull had the chance to develop his quizzing skills. “We had graduate joiner quizzes and end-of-year departmental quizzes,” he says. “It was seen as a laugh, but I’d get very competitive. That may well have provided the spark for me to take it up at university and eventually do well on University Challenge.” Seagull became involved in training new graduate entrants at PwC. He soon realised it was the most rewarding part of the job, prompting him to enrol on the Cambridge PGCE and take up teaching as a career. He soon crossed paths with his University Challenge arch-rival. “Eric Monkman and I were friends before we did the show,” he says.

“In Cambridge, there’s quite a big quizzing scene. That’s where we met.” Since the show propelled them to fame, Seagull has thrown himself into a whirl of media projects, both with Monkman and solo. (It’s worth noting that on the first day of his PGCE, the other members of his cohort christened him “Bobby Energy”.) He says: “I had lots of approaches and offers – TV, radio and so on. We initially had a Radio Four programme on polymaths in August 2017 tephen Fry was one of our guests because he’d been such a fan of ours. We produced a quiz book, inventively called The Monkman and Seagull Quiz Book. Then the BBC approached us to come up with a road trip series, and we did our Genius Guide to Britain in 2018. We’ve just finished filming the second series, called Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Guide to the Age of Invention. It’s three one-hour episodes, looking at inventions and scientific discoveries in Britain from 1750 to 1900, and it’ll be on BBC Two in the autumn.”

He has also ticked off the ambition of writing a more personal book: The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers was published by Penguin Random House last year. “It’s partly autobiographical and partly an ode to numbers, showing how maths is everywhere,” he says. “My favourite chapter is the one about the maths of dating. I’m doing some talks later in the autumn about it, because adults find it interesting that you can look at something that is supposed to be a purely emotional thing and bring a quantitative framework to it.” His most important work, he believes, is using his media platform to advocate for numeracy and maths education. “My main mission in life is to help people overcome their fear of numbers,” he says.

“I’m an ambassador for the charity National Numeracy, which focuses on improving numeracy for adults. One of their headline statistics is that 50% of adults in the country have the number skills you’d expect of an 11-year-old. “I also promote the importance of numeracy in financial competence. I co-presented an Open University course entitled Managing My Money for Young Adults with Martin Lewis, who started Money Saving Expert.” For all this, he has no plans to abandon the classroom. After working as a newly qualified teacher in East London Science School, he spent a year at Chesterton Community College in Cambridge. He now teaches maths part-time at Little Ilford School, a state secondary within walking distance of his childhood home, while studying for a doctorate in education back at Emmanuel College. Although his time at PwC was brief, Seagull finds himself drawing parallels between work at an accountancy firm and at the chalkface.

He says: “You deliver lessons by yourself in front of the students – that’s your output product – but a lot of teaching is a team-based thing. The structures that you see in accountancy firms, you can see reflected in a teaching environment. There are department meetings, resources that you have to develop with other people, and you have a hierarchy of assistant heads, heads of department and senior leaders. “We need excellent teachers, and I think the ones who are the most influential and successful are those who can communicate and interact well across the school, share ideas and resources, and learn from others. You can definitely see the parallels with accountancy.”

He has kept up his association with ICAEW. One Monday in May, he set a special daily puzzle on Radio Four’s Today programme to mark the anniversary of ICAEW’s Royal Charter in 1880. More early-morning brainteasers are planned. “There will be one commemorating the 100th anniversary of the admittance of the first female ICAEW member, Mary Harris Smith, in May 2020,” he says. Seagull is a firm believer that the ACA delivers transferable skills that are of benefit outside the accountancy profession – something first brought home to him when he was developing OxFizz, the social enterprise he had co-founded in 2007 to help disadvantaged applicants reach university.

He says: “The ACA training really helped me with the finance side during the early days, and OxFizz has since made close to £1m in donations. I’m now a trustee of the charity UpRising, which supports young people’s leadership programmes, and a governor of Newham College where I sit on the finance and resources committee. Without the ACA, I wouldn’t be able to add as much value to these organisations. I write ad hoc for the Financial Times, focusing on how improvement in numerical competency leads to better personal finance. Again, my ACA gives me credibility – it’s mentioned in my bio in the newspaper.”

As to the future, Seagull is nurturing a hope that his ACA may pull one more benefit out of the hat. “I’m a huge West Ham football fan and former season ticket holder,” he says. “I do work with the club’s Foundation, promoting education and maths with local schools. One day, I hope to join the non-exec board of West Ham. Hopefully, my financial background will stand me in good stead for that.”

Originally published in Economia on 6 September 2019.