The University Challenge star propelled by a love of maths
With his unusual name and irrepressible good humour, Bobby Seagull emerged as one of the star contestants in the latest University Challenge series. One of four brothers, he grew up in the London borough of Newham and after university entered the City as a trader. Now he’s on track to make a difference in maths and education.
I’d never watched an episode of University Challenge until I took part in the contest heats a couple of years ago. When I was a kid, my dad would be flicking through the channels, University Challenge would come on, and I’d only know one or two answers. I’d hide behind the sofa in awe of the students who seemed to know everything.
Becoming a bit of a celebrity doesn’t worry me. My family make sure I’m keeping my feet on the ground. It’s not the attention that’s important, but what I can do with it for positive social value. I want to use my spell in the limelight as a platform for inspiring kids to get involved in maths. Since being on University Challenge I’ve had some exciting offers for books and television series — all to promote maths. It’s going to be a juggling act to do it all.
On the first day of the postgraduate teaching course (PGCE) at Cambridge, we were asked to come up with nicknames for each other. Mine was Bobby Energy. At school I was sometimes called Tigger after the bouncy tiger in Winnie-the-Pooh. I’ve got so much to do and not enough time. I survive with a nap on Sundays. I put some music on — Aled Jones or Jamie Cullum — and fall asleep for an hour or so.
I’ve always been someone who absorbs information. I’m the second of four brothers, and each Saturday we’d go to East Ham Library and lie on the floor for hours reading books. There were loads of books at home too — on every kind of topic. I’d read bits almost at random. Little did I know that it would one day come in useful to know the name of the French tennis player known as the Crocodile.
Yes, my name is pretty unusual. My dad was very taken by the book Jonathan Livingstone Seagull — it came out in the 1970s and had a big following. My mum wanted Seagull to be a middle name, rather than our surname but he got his way. Two of us are Seagull and two of us are Seagull Jose. The dinner ladies at school knew me right away.
All of us have Jay as a first name. It’s a south Indian tradition of sorts to share the same first name and to be known by your middle name. My parents came to the UK from Kerala in India which has historic links with Portugal. That’s why my dad’s surname is Jose. He’s an entrepreneur at heart who’s full of ideas and always starting new projects. He made us believe we could do anything.
At primary school I was mad about football — and numbers. I managed to combine them by creating Excel spreadsheets that captured information about dozens of players. I could then work out which players should be on which team.
At St Bonaventure’s Roman Catholic secondary school my maths and form teacher was Mr Workmaster. He was compiling a maths puzzle book and he’d call me up to the board to try the puzzles out. We had a brilliant and inspirational headmaster, Michael Wilshaw, who was later knighted as well as becoming head of Ofsted. One day he stopped me in the corridor and asked “What’s the capital of Kazakhstan?” When I replied Astana, he gave me a £5 WH Smith book token.
I applied to Eton College for sixth form after seeing an advert in the Times for scholarships. I wasn’t fazed by the idea of it being elite — and the scholarship covered all costs. I spent a great two years there and benefited from excellent teaching. What I remember most is playing football and eating Häagen-Dazs ice cream while listening to classical and jazz music with friends. I enjoyed wearing the uniform with its tails and wing collars.
At Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford I started a degree in maths. I think I was too young. When I realised I was heading for a 2:2 which wasn’t going to help me with a career in the City, I decided to leave, which was quite a difficult decision. I started afresh at Royal Holloway where I took maths and economics. I left with a 2:1 and went to work with Lehman Brothers as a trader.
Before Oxford I’d taken a gap year and spent two months doing youth work in a tough part of Edinburgh. Muirhouse is where Trainspotting was set. I was even younger than some of the young people I was working with. My positivity got through to them and I loved it. We played a lot of football and it showed me that I could make a difference.
The decision to make a career change into teaching came when I was working for PricewaterhouseCoopers. After my time in banking, I qualified as a chartered accountant at PwC. I was given the job of training their new graduates and I enjoyed it so much I decided to apply to do a PGCE. Two of my brothers had been at Cambridge — one at Trinity and one at St Catharine’s — and the third one at St Peter’s, Oxford. I decided on Cambridge.
I did my teaching practice in state schools in London and Cambridge. I’m a real London boy and the teaching there is rewarding but challenging. You only become aware of the preparation that goes into giving a lesson when you give one yourself. Dealing with a disruptive pupil and keeping the rest of the class on track is an art. If I go into educational policy, I’ll know what it’s like in the classroom.
In September I’m starting a PhD in education specialising in maths. I’m doing it over five years while teaching maths at a local state school, Chesterton Community College. I’ve been teaching there already and being on University Challenge has given me a bit of kudos with the kids. I’m especially enjoying teaching the younger groups — they’re really alive to ideas.
I did my PGCE at Hughes Hall. It was there that I saw a notice asking people to sign up for heats. The Cambridge inter-collegiate quiz championships are even fiercer than University Challenge. When I moved to Emmanuel College I qualified to become captain. We were organised in our preparation, analysing past questions and dividing up the task of absorbing different areas of knowledge such as the periodic table, US states and Nobel Laureates.
Jeremy Paxman has been the quiz master for University Challenge for 24 years. He seems scary but he’s incredibly supportive to students. I think he likes quirky personalities. One of the high points was when we had a question about a 1980s rapper. My team mate Tom Hill and I got the answer together: Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. Paxman said “Well done!” with real feeling.
If there’s one thing I’m not good at it’s singing. But one of my primary school teachers, Mrs Lang, taught us the South African national anthem — and I can still sing that, kind of. Oh, and I’ve got absolutely no sense of direction. Even though I know lots about maps and geography, I still get lost.
This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.