It is the morning of the general election and I’m in Radlett, Hertfordshire to meet David McQueen.
McQueen, who runs Magnificent Generation, a pupil mentoring programme, bounds into a local Caffè Nero with so much energy and enthusiasm that it knocks me back. “Sorry, I’m a bit late [he’s actually on time], I’ve lost my keys and my wallet. I have no idea how I managed to lose both.”
He seems unfazed so we jump right into the interview. I am treated to an hour of McQueen dynamism.
Born the second of three boys, he says he has always been a “people person”, an extrovert “determined” not to become the forgotten middle child.
“Education is not designed for the poor”
Describing himself as the “big mouth” and the joker, he was just as happy at school with the popular crowd as he was with the shy, quiet types.
“I hate seeing people lonely, I have a real issue with that. I would be playing a football match or something like that and I could see somebody on their own and I would just start talking to them: ‘How’re you doing, blah, blah, blah. When I’ve finished playing football, if you want to have a chat, we can have a chat.
“School can be horrid. I’m not going to grab somebody and make them be in the popular group, because they might just be happy where they are. But I was just as happy being the life and soul of the party over here, or sitting down in the corner over there with people who wanted to listen to some mad, crazy rock, or some Human League or some weird, alternative pop music.”
A mantra instilled in him from a young age – “if you have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, take that opportunity” – has influenced his attitude and work.
“[My parents] recall this story that on one of my first days of nursery I said, ‘Why am I here in the sandpit? I didn’t come to play in the sand, I came to learn!’. Then I would go over and break up fights and be the peacemaker and talk to people who were on their own, so it’s apparently something that has been there from quite young.”
His parents both came to England in 1966, his mother from Barbados and his father from Grenada. The pair arrived on the same day – although they did not meet until later.
He says it was his upbringing in the strong African Caribbean community of Harlesden, north London, and later Harrow in the 1970s and 80s, which shaped his character.
He brought friends home from church on a Saturday, and later, when married, would bring teenagers he was working with as a youth worker back for dinner at the weekend.
A few minutes into our chat, his wife of 20 years, Madeline, pops in to give him a tenner, gently mocking him for losing his belongings.
He explains how they met 27 years ago at a gospel concert in Milton Keynes. “She was actually going out with one of my friends, but I didn’t steal her!”
They met again, when she was single, and for the next three years maintained a long-distance relationship while she lived in Leicester and he was still in London.
“The phone bills were horrendous. In the first quarter when we were going out, the combined phone bill came to £900 – we were on the phone every day! So that’s £300 a month between us – I had to dip into my savings, my mum put a lock on the phone… I found out there was a way to tap phones with a coathanger so I was a proper criminal. We were very devious.”
His parents wanted him to be a doctor, engineer or lawyer. A year of law at North London Polytechnic put him off the latter.
From 19 he tutored young people in his spare time and soon became a mentor for young, black students at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
“In my early 20s, a friend of mine, her daughter was one of the first black students to go to Cambridge … but she committed suicide, the pressure was too much. I found out later that being the best and brightest in school meant nothing when you went to Cambridge, which was dominated by independent middle-class white students who didn’t understand your experience. As a black teenager she felt totally out of her…”
He trails off. “Unfortunately she lost her life.”
He set up Magnificent Generation when he was 33, 14 years ago, and has since been touring schools across the country to help young people in the run-up to their exams. He visits about 30 schools each year, alongside his work as a public speaker. (His website says he once presented on television).
“There was no one doing it so I set my own up business. I started speaking in schools and doing a lot of assemblies about getting students ready for exams. I did research around that as well.”
He also noticed there was no consistent careers advice “unless you went to private school”, though, even there, he says, there are issues.
As father to two teenage girls, he attempts to keep up with modern trends and remain the “cool dad” – referencing current music and cultural points relevant to the pupils he works with.
His passion is engaging young people – from those in pupil referral units to those in independent schools – to do the best they can.
“One of the things I am really frustrated with sometimes is that, institutionally, education is not designed for the poor. . . or the disengaged. even though money has been thrown at it.
“The reality is that the only way education is going to be treasured and valued for those who don’t have access to money or the knowledge that others have, is to change a lot of other things too. Housing, proportional representation, politics…
“I consider it a privilege and an honour being able to do what I do; being able to get into schools and get that message out there, knowing that for some kids they have never had somebody come in and tell them they are brilliant and they can do it.
“Some kids just won’t know that. So, having been able to do this stuff for 13 years, and as an educator for 25 years, that for me is great.
“It’s a legacy and it’s a real honour.”
IT’S A PERSONAL THING
What was the first album you bought?
Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall
If you could have any “superhero power”, what would it be?
Where would you live if you had a choice?
Anywhere where there is sunshine all year round.
What is your favourite thing to do in your spare time?
Read. Fiction, history and philosophy.
If you could have coffee with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?