Meet the Twitter historian inspired by his FE college

Frank McDonough dropped out of school at 15. A decade on, an FE college paved the way to Oxford and a professorship

Kate Parker

Frank McDonough:

“If I look back on my life, I have to say, I never thought it would turn out the way it did – and it turned out the way it did because of further education. If I hadn’t gone through FE, then what would my life have been?” Professor Frank McDonough pauses for a few seconds.

“It may have been just as nice, but it wouldn’t have been the life of achievement that I’ve had. Going to a further education college was a transforming experience that changed my life completely.”

Life before FE had little direction for McDonough. A Liverpool man through and through, he grew up in Everton, a disadvantaged area just north of the city, in a two-up, two-down terraced house with his mum, dad, brother and sister. He says the family weren’t well off – his dad was a hospital porter and his mum a housewife. 

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McDonough didn’t like school – he laughs and says the soundtrack to his childhood was Alice Cooper’s School's Out and that when the headmaster told his class they’d be sent home unless they got their hair cut, it was an incentive to grow his longer.

The problem was the teachers, he says: they were too dictatorial and simply “not very good”. A friend of his left school and got a job in an office. McDonough quickly followed suit. “He was wearing smart clobber, he had money, and he was out on Friday night, so I thought, 'I’d rather have that than staying on in school'."

So, at just 15 years old, McDonough dropped out of education and got a job as a shipping clerk. It wasn’t just a lack of enthusiasm for learning that drove the decision, but financial necessity too: his family needed the money. 

He later became an insurance clerk – “a regular Bob Cratchit” – for around 10 years before being made redundant. Aged 25, he was jobless and unsure of what to do with the rest of his life.

Then two things happened that changed the direction of his life. First, his brother – who also left school at 15 – decided to give higher education a go and began a course through the Open University. A few months later, one of his brother’s new university friends told McDonough that he’d gone to Liverpool Further Education College (which became part what is now City of Liverpool College) to do his A levels. 

It was the first time McDonough had ever heard of an FE college: he didn’t realise that completing A levels as a mature student was even an option. As a clerk, his reading and writing had both massively improved. He'd also taken a keen interest in history, watching hours upon hours of documentaries. "I used to keep scrapbooks of news," he remembers, fondly. "I was a history geek, and I still am." 

McDonough was confident that this time around, education could be different. He enrolled at the very same FE college, and two years later, walked out with five O levels in a year. He went on to gain A levels in history, sociology and British government and politics.

“The FE college was fantastic, it made me," he says. "It’s such a fantastic feature of the education system. What was good was that they understood the older students coming back. I wasn’t that old, I was 25, but I had a teacher called Jim Rand and he was really funny and sounded a bit like Ken Dodd, and he has this fantastic enthusiasm, and I bought into his enthusiasm."

McDonough waited until he received his A-level results before applying to university. And when he realised he’d achieved three As, he set his sights on the best of the best. 

“I thought, 'I’ll go to Oxford'. I remembered that Lord Peter Wimsey [Dorothy Sayers’ detective protagonist] went to Balliol College, it was the most famous college, one of the most intellectual colleges, so I thought, I’ll go there. I got in with a scholarship,” he says.

Life as an Oxford undergraduate 

Leaving a lively working-class Liverpool behind for the world’s elitist, selective and traditional university was a massive cultural shock for the 26-year-old McDonough. 

“It was like that film by Laurel and Hardy, A Chump at Oxford. They all had nicknames like Dinky, Winky, Binky, things like that, it was really weird. Public school people seemed to think going to Oxford was a holiday, that it had been a real grind getting through those public schools and now they could relax – a lot of them didn’t work very hard. I went with a different perspective. 

“I knew they would be younger than me,  it wasn’t that great to start as a mature student…It was a different world, I mean, you had to wear a gown to get a library card. When I would tell people about my background, they’d say, [puts on a posh accent] 'Oh gawd, I don’t think I could have done that, I couldn’t have left school'," he says. 

McDonough met lots of “interesting characters” at Oxford. Seeing Boris Johnson in the dining hall at breakfast was a regular occurrence. The prime minister did stand out, he says – but because of his hair, not his intellect. 

“They’re saying now, 'Oh he was a great scholar.' I’m telling you, I never heard a single person or tutor ever say, 'Oh Boris Johnson, he’s brilliant'.”

McDonough wouldn’t say what honours he graduated with; he simply says, “it was a very good degree.” He returned to his hometown of Liverpool and got his first graduate job as a TV researcher for Mersey TV. 

It was there that he first experienced the thrill of being a TV historian. To date, he has been a talking head on more than 80 documentaries filmed all over the world. 

“They liked me on TV because I was different, that was a selling point. They put me on with a historian called Guy Walters, he was the posh boy and I was the guy from the sticks. In America, a Liverpool accent is very highly prized. I remember getting interviewed by a woman in America and she said, 'God it’s like talking to John Lennon!'”

However, McDonough suspects that his accent isn’t as appreciated by all. He recalls a number of examples where BBC producers have approached him to contribute as a history expert only to “back out of the room” upon hearing his accent.

"Channel 4 and 5 don’t care, and satellite TV never even mention it. But on the BBC, all of sudden you can feel like it. They’re like, 'Oh god he’s got a Liverpool accent, what am I going to do?' I don’t know what that is about. They think people with regional accents should be comedians. There’s no excuse, I should be on the BBC. You know what? I’m the only historian who’s been on TV as much as me and hasn't had their own programme."

Taking Twitter by storm

These days, however, McDonough says he’s most recognised not from TV, but from his Twitter account. At 7.30am each morning, he tweets something that has happened on that date in history.

“People see me in town and say, 'You’re that fella from Twitter'. I get recognised as much for Twitter than anything else. I like the fact that dads and mums read it to their children, teachers show it at the start of the day in class. I don’t post anything about my life, or politics – I don’t think they want to know about that. You won’t see me posting 'Vote this, vote that'. People don’t want that,” he says.

McDonough’s account is a nostalgic escape – full of images which conjure up memories of what his followers were doing on that date, in any given year. 

In his day job, McDonough can be found at Liverpool John Moores University, where he teaches history – specialising in the Third Reich. He's published several popular books on the subject, some of which have been translated into 17 different languages. He's spent 30 years of his life at Liverpool John Moores, after initially starting part-time alongside completing a PhD. 

Most of his students are from the local area and, as the only Liverpudlian professor in his department, he’s proud to be a role model for them. 

“What I enjoy about my job is that I’m taking people from the local community and some who failed as well, and I’m a role model for them. [You can hear them] saying, 'Look, he’s done well, he’s from Liverpool.' You can succeed if you are from Liverpool. I’ve stayed authentic, I haven’t compromised my personality. I’m a high achiever,” he says.

Although, he wonders, could his story be repeated today? He hopes so, and says that more needs to be done to encourage mature students to progress from FE into HE.

“If I’d stayed in the mindset of thinking I wasn’t good at anything else other than being a clerk, I could have carried on like that…But really by going to FE, it made me realise, hey look, maybe I can do something with my life. Getting the O levels was a great achievement, and then so was doing the A levels. And the teachers: I’d say the teachers I had at the FE college, most of them were as good as the people I had at Oxford – some of them were better,” he says.

“And then when I ended up down in Oxford, I used to get a sandwich from the Oxford market and I’d be sat by the Radcliffe Camera, reading my paper and eating my sandwich and think, 'Hey this isn't bad.' But that wouldn't have happened if it wasn’t for FE.”

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateParkerTes

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