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Memory of Genius

Back in the mists of time, when Margaret Thatcher bestrode the earth, off toddled a Black Country lad to a university far away. The only child and first to venture off into higher education etc… A well-trodden path and an often-told story and I don’t want to focus on the very real and personal ways in which relatively well-funded access to education changed the lives of a few in my generation. We certainly knew no better, having visited a paltry number of universities before making our choices, so ignored the peeling walls of Victorian lecture rooms and squeezed without protest into seminars crammed into Georgian terraces. All part of this institution’s Brideshead-y seaside charm.

Now, like many education facilities up and down the country, these aged facilities have been replaced by gleaming edifices of steel and glass equipped with all mod cons. Such primitive surroundings are banished to private, nostalgic reminiscence, so I don’t want to talk about this sector directly – universities will look after themselves and many will continue to do very well thank you. Instead, I would assert that it was the stage before, my education Sixth Form College that gave me the breadth and the confidence, verging on arrogance to overthrow any lingering impostor syndrome, that I could survive in such an arena and thrive.

My later teaching career was spent in such places, and I saw close-up how this perennially underfunded Cinderella Service impacted on working class young people’s lives because I believed in the way further or post-16 education empowered these young people. College was a kind of safe halfway house between school and the big bad world. It gave students the opportunity to explore adulthood and the enhanced responsibilities it brings by affording space to develop individuality and explore adulthood, within a supportive setting.

It was in one such college that the extra-curricular student politics group invited local MP Gisela Stuart to attend a debate about the then new student loans scheme. You can imagine that it was a robust afternoon, with no quarter asked nor none given, and Gisela did not patronise, passionately advocating her position in favour of the loans system intended to fund the expansion of opportunity the HE system then needed. No-one could of course imagine the ways in which the HE landscape would be changed but it’s clear, given the competing priorities of the time, that not enough money would flow into this sector. Education, Education, Education meant primary and secondary took priority and it was hard to disagree when you recall the broken windows and dripping, rotten roofs of many schools up and down the country.

While sixth form colleges generally retain a laser-like focus on preparing students for HE, the other arm of this underfunded Cinderella Service remains Further Education. I remember walking the halls of Dudley Tech, as a callow part time lecturer, peering in on workshops packed with lathes and other indescribable machines that I’d heard about from my uncles’ conversations, all to be swept away by automation and its stalking horse – redundancies. This to many is the picture of the local Tech, however they are today as crucial as sixth forms in giving young people access to high quality training, higher education, and opportunity.

Fast forward to more recent times, as a Dudley councillor and cabinet member I remember walking around a bright and shiny new college complex situated on long vacated industrial land, marvelling at the complexity and endless innovation afforded by the state-of-the-art design and manufacturing equipment proudly on display. Crucially this kit represents a language that people in the Black County still speak (an idiom shared with the City of a Thousand Trades nearby) – there’s still a smell of machine oil about the place, a smear of grease, the folk memory of genius. Colleges admit what our education system elsewhere does not: that people are different, not everyone wants or needs academic training, that perceived failure at 16 is not the end; that education should not just be the territory of the young. They implicitly assert that vocational study is as valuable as the academic – that both can be pathways to fulfilling and often lucrative work.

When will our region’s manufacturing genius be fully recognised again? I believe we’re literally already down the road. We are told that as a country and a region that we must compete globally and innovate or die. That there is always someone sharper and hungrier eying the prize. Well, Black Country people know something about sharpness and hunger, both real and figurative. At the time, that centre in Dudley (which sat close to an equally prestigious sixth form centre) was the outrider for a complex which is currently under development, with a Very Light Rail Innovation Centre underway to develop the next generation of rapid passenger transport systems.

And yes, HE is finally ready to come back into the town after a hiatus of thirty years, with a HE campus planned in partnership with the University of Worcester to replace the derelict Hippodrome Theatre.

I also visited a local engineering company in Sedgley, which is designing and exporting driverless cars and its accompanying technology around the globe. It’s also employing apprentices from the area, but these young workers need motivation and inspiration, so the company also devises engineering projects for schools, challenging the next generation of problem solvers.

There are of course many more examples and I think it proves three things: that the Black Country and our region never lost its aspiration to create the new; things can happen with belief, planning and ambition; that our Techs and sixth forms are the springboard to opportunity. They deserve the funding recognition that will deliver more than notional guff about parity between vocational and academic learning.


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