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Speech to Manchester Grammar School pupils


2 August 2014

Manchester Grammar School is an independent boys grammar school in Manchester, which in 2015 will celebrate its 500'th anniversary. It has always been the most academically successful boys school in Manchester, and was therefore the first choice for my sons. Even though it is fee paying, the entrance exam is very competitive and I was delighted when, many years ago, each of them gained admission. I had done my bit to help with parental coaching!

The school would like to operate a "needs blind" admissions policy, although it is not yet able to do so. When the "assisted places scheme" was abolished by the Labour government in 1997, MGS launched an appeal to significantly enlarge its bursary fund. I attend a small gathering of parents where the headmaster, at that time Martin Stephen, made such a moving appeal that I resolved to endow a perpetual bursary. It took donations over several years, but I was able to fulfil that resolution.

I was recently asked to address the senior school assembly, which I did on 28 April 2014. My goal was to help the pupils think about their future lives and responsibilities. The speech was based upon my "Alumnus of the Year" speech to the second-year students at Clare College, adapted for the different context.

I prepared two documents.

  1. A text for a teacher to introduce me, to avoid me having to talk about myself.
  2. The text of my speech. I wrote out a full text to be sure that the speech would fit within the allotted time.

Both are reproduced below.

Introduction for Mohammed Amin

Mohammed Amin was born in Pakistan, and came to the UK at the age of 1 ¾.

His parents were very poor and illiterate, and Amin grew up in the slums of Chorlton on Medlock and Moss Side in Manchester. Despite this background, he went to a grammar school, and obtained a degree in mathematics at Clare College Cambridge. He also got a Post Graduate Certificate in Education from Leeds University.

After a year teaching, he trained as a chartered accountant, coming fifth in the country in one of the examinations, and specialised in taxation.

In 1990 he became the first Muslim partner in Price Waterhouse, and in 2003 was elected to PricewaterhouseCoopers’s Supervisory Board. He retired at the end of 2009. Since then, he spends his time helping society, and is active in many organisations. This includes:

You can learn much more about Amin by visiting his website:

For his services to the community, Clare College chose Amin as its Alumnus of the Year for 2014.

Both of Amin’s sons attended Manchester Grammar School. He is a major donor to the Bursary Appeal, and his name is on the stone outside the main entrance in the quad.

Text of the speech

Wow! Whenever I hear an introduction like that, I always have the same reaction. "Is that really me he's talking about?"

The greatest speech ever given by any American president was only two minutes long. That was the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. If you don't know it, I strongly recommend finding and reading it. Thinking about it encourages me to keep my speeches short.

What I want to do today is to share with you what my life has taught me. After all, at the age of 63, I am old enough to be your grandfather!

I want to start by explaining why I do what I do.

Most people set out to enjoy themselves when they retire and no longer need to work. Some play lots of golf. Others spend time on hobbies like gardening. Some take lots of holidays.

Very few people intend to spend their retirement giving speeches, sitting in meetings, or writing pages for a website. Why do I do that?

It comes back to my life. By all objective measures I had a deprived childhood. My parents were very poor. I grew up in the slums of Manchester in Chorlton on Medlock and then Moss Side. My parents spoke very little English and they were illiterate. In my entire school career I did not go on a single foreign trip. The same is true when I was at University.

Despite these objective measures, all my life I have been conscious of being blessed.

The reality is that I had an idyllic childhood. Both of my parents doted on me. Everything that I asked for, if they could possibly afford it, they gave me. From the time that I could read properly, my father regularly ferried me to libraries. I never had to work at home. I was never expected to get a job while I was studying. And every waking hour was spent enjoying myself, either with friends or watching television or reading.

As well as having parents who doted on me, I was blessed with a high IQ. I can’t claim any credit for that; it’s just something I was born with.

At school my teachers lavished attention on me because I wanted to learn, while sadly most of my classmates really didn’t want to learn.

I sailed through the 11+ exam. After seven enjoyable years at a state grammar school, Clare College gave me a place to read mathematics. My career gave me endless job satisfaction. I was never bored. I travelled the world. I worked with incredibly bright colleagues and served very intelligent clients. I had an endless supply of difficult intellectual challenges. Some of us enjoy difficult intellectual challenges! Finally, it was very well paid.

All my life, I have been conscious of being incredibly fortunate. In the words of Psalm 23 in the Bible: “My cup runneth over.”

One of the most important turning points in my life came in February 2002. That was when my wife and I went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. The most important day of the Hajj is the day that you spend at the plain of Arafat. The concept in religious terms is that God is particularly near to you as you stand there at Arafat. You are supposed to ask for things, to ask for blessings from God.

So what do you ask for? Some of the things are obvious. I asked for good health and a long life for myself, my wife and our children. I asked for world peace. You can ask for anything. But in a few minutes you run out of things to ask for. And as I stood there on the religiously most important day of my life, I realised what I wanted more than anything else.

I became even more aware than normal about how much I have been blessed throughout my life. That day I realised that I wanted to spend the rest of my life helping others to make better lives for themselves - because in many cases they just don’t know how to do it.

I wanted to help, and I do help, all kinds of people. However I particularly wanted to help other Muslims. That isn’t just because I am a Muslim myself. It was because I could see so many Muslims struggling to understand our society. Remember the date, February 2002, it was about four months after 9/11.

Now, I have only five messages for you.

That is as far as I can count with one hand!

Firstly you are all also exceptionally fortunate.

There are two reasons I say that.

To start with, you had the intelligence and ability to pass the entrance exams for MGS. I know from coaching my own sons just how hard the entrance exams are. Being intelligent isn’t everything, but it is a great deal better than being dim!

Secondly, at Manchester Grammar School you are receiving education from one of the very best schools in the country.

Both Jews and Muslims say that education is the best form of wealth. It is the only kind of wealth that nobody can ever take away from you. People can steal my money but they can never steal my knowledge or my skills.

Secondly, life does not always give you what you want.

When I was at school I originally wanted to be an astronomer and then changed it to wanting to be a theoretical physicist.

I knew I was exceptionally intelligent. My IQ is so high that I am in the top 1 in every 250 people. In my A-levels I got four grade A results. That is common now but in 1968 was almost unheard of. Everything was on track when I went to Cambridge. Sadly at Cambridge I realised that if I was good, other people were simply brilliant.

I might be 1 in 250 but others were more like 1 in 10,000. I was desperately disappointed to learn that I would never be a really good mathematician or theoretical physicist. That was, and remains, the greatest disappointment of my life.

Thirdly, you have to be open to new opportunities.

Being disappointed at the age of 19 does not entitle you to give up on life!

I had never contemplated accountancy as a career. In fact I knew nothing about it. At the age of 23, a little thing I don't have time to go into made me pick up a book in Central Library. It was called "Accounting – the basis for business decisions."

I turned a few pages. It looked interesting. Opening the book changed my life and led me to a fabulous career.

Fourthly, do what totally absorbs you.

I simply loved solving tax problems. Life is far too short to waste on a job where you are working just for the money.

Unless you are completely fascinated and totally committed to what you do, you will not be happy and eventually you will not be very good at the job.

Fifthly, don't feel guilty about your own personal success.

I often talk to young people in their 20s about careers. Almost all of them tell me about wanting to work for a charity or an NGO. The reason is that they want to make the world a better place.

I always remind them of the airline safety videos. The videos show the oxygen masks falling downwards in an emergency. The message is always the same. If you are travelling with a child or other person who needs help, put your own oxygen mask on first. Then help the child. The reason is very simple. If you pass out from lack of oxygen, you will be no help to your child or anyone else.

Your ability to help other people is much greater if you are rich or if you are at the top of a large organisation. That means you should never feel guilty about concentrating on your personal career and upon aiming at success measured in the simplest ways: making lots of money and climbing the ladder.

However, our success is not due to us alone.

My success would have been impossible without the devotion of my parents. It would have been impossible without my teachers at school. It would have been impossible without the many other people who have helped and guided me. The same will be true for you.

However, none of us can repay our parents. We cannot repay our teachers. We cannot repay the others who helped us when we were young. For this kind of help, it is impossible to "Pay it back." All we can do is "Pay it forward." I first read those words as a teenager in the science-fiction of Robert A. Heinlein. I have never forgotten them.

That is why I am standing here talking to you now. That is why I donated money for a perpetual bursary to the school’s Bursary Appeal.

Manchester Grammar School is a great school. Next year it will be 500 years old. The responsibility for keeping it a great school is ultimately down to you.

There are two things that you can do.

Firstly, make a success of your own lives.

Manchester Grammar School has a great reputation because so many of the outstanding people in our country went to Manchester Grammar School.

That is where the reputation of a school comes from. If all of you make a miserable failure of your own lives, the school's reputation will sink with you!

Secondly, as soon as you are earning, you can start giving some money to the school.

Manchester Grammar School wants to be a school that lets in the very best people who pass its entrance exam, without having to think about whether their parents can afford to pay the fees.

That is only possible with money from people like me and you. The school you see today exists because for hundreds of years people have had a vision for a great school in Manchester. However keeping that vision alive ultimately depends on you.

To finish, I pray that your lives are as happy as mine.


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