I am very pleased to be here this morning and want to talk to you about the role of education in general and Wolverhampton College in particular in the life of the city.
Wolverhampton South East, the part of the city I represent, is in the top 20 constituencies in the country for unemployment.
My constituency, like the rest of the city and indeed the wider Black Country, still bears the scars of huge industrial closures and loss a generation ago.
Loss on that scale doesn’t just take work away, though it certainly did that. It also damages pride, local identity and sense of purpose.
The picture of course has not all been gloomy. Just up the road the new £500m Jaguar Land Rover Engine Manufacturing Centre employs 1400 people and is responsible for many more jobs in the supply chain. We also have a strong aerospace sector in the city. But the days of huge manufacturing plants employing 6 or 7 thousand people on one site are not coming back.
The economy has changed. The labour market has changed. The world has changed.
For many years this change has posed a stark question for Wolverhampton. What will the city do for a living and how will it equip its people to do it?
When so much has been lost, nostalgia is tempting, and we should always respect the sense of identity which the great industrial names of the city sustained.
But the true answer to the big questions facing Wolverhampton do not lie in nostalgia. They lie in a common resolve to give the people of the city the best chance possible in life, in the labour market of today and tomorrow, not of yesterday. And Wolverhampton College is absolutely integral to that.
Let me put it bluntly: most of my constituents are not going to get on in life because of inherited wealth or their parents social connections – the factors that fuel advancement for some. Education is their only chance. It is their only avenue to opportunity, to career choice, to the empowerment that comes through having options and choices.
My own parents came to Britain from rural Ireland many years ago. They had almost no formal education but they were determined to make sure their children did. And it is only through education that someone from my background – my dad was a labourer on building sites – could possibly work in the Number 10 Policy Unit, be the political secretary to the Prime Minister, become an MP and Government Minister.
I am very grateful for the chances education gave me. And I want those chances for others. You are absolutely vital to the life chances of my constituents.
I don’t see the educational terrain as a battle between the sectors. I favour high participation in Higher Education. I would never want to return to the days when that was a privilege for a few, not a chance for many.
But children and young people need great schools and great colleges just as much as they need great universities. And there is no reason to have such a stark divide between FE and HE or between the qualifications granted by either.
In Wolverhampton the school system has not consistently given young people the opportunities they deserve. There are some excellent schools of course. There are hardworking inspirational teachers. There are places succeeding in tough circumstances. But too regularly there are schools falling into special measures. Not enough schools regularly hit or exceed the national average of results, particularly at the top grades. We have to change that, to move on from angst about the structures and focus more on the mission. It is precisely because I am passionate about opportunity for my constituents and think the denial of that opportunity is a tragedy that I have spoken out over and over again about this issue in my 10 years here as an MP.
And the college is a vital part of the opportunity ecosystem of the city. If the college is doing badly, that is bad for opportunity for the people of the city.
That’s why the turnaround in recent years led by Mark and helped by all of you is so important. When the college does well, as it is doing now, that is good for opportunity, good for the people of Wolverhampton.
I know financially it is tough for colleges right now. And I don’t think the financial side is going to get any easier. But the opportunities you give your students are more important than ever, even in tough financial times. If we can equip people for the jobs of today and tomorrow, if we can help shape empowered young people, this is good for them, good for our city and an antidote to those who want to blame every problem the country favours on outsiders.
I don’t believe in the politics of grievance and anger. Blaming others for our problems doesn’t create a single job. And it’s an illusion to think that if we put a wall round the country, suddenly opportunity will open up. I believe in giving people a chance not a grievance. That was the slogan on every leaflet I distributed at the last election. And you are a huge part of the chance.
So I am delighted that we have a highly rated college in the city, under strong clear leadership and I know there are exciting discussions going on about future locations and investments.
Leadership is important and I want to thank Mark for his. But no turnaround happens through the efforts of one person alone. It happens because people throughout the organisation believe in it and want it to happen. I want to thank all of you for what you have done for the college and the city and I want to ask you to keep going because it is so important to the people I represent.
You really can change lives through what you do and I am sure that like me you believe the young people of Wolverhampton are as smart, talented and committed as anywhere else. Let us give them the chances in life they deserve.