The Right Honourable Professor Lord David Blunkett, Honorary Doctor
The Right Honourable Professor Lord David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment in the 1997 Labour Government, Home Secretary after the 2001 election and subsequently Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has been awarded an honorary doctorate in the School of Health and Social Care.
David is honoured for his work to promote greater equality of opportunity and improved access to education, and also for his commitment to occupational health and health and safety. Among his many voluntary roles, he is Patron of the Society of Occupational Medicine.
Growing up in Sheffield
"I grew up in Sheffield and noticed early on that life was a struggle for many working people. When my own father was killed in an industrial accident when I was 12, we struggled too. My mother was also caring for my elderly grandfather and seeing what she went through made me determined that if I ever got the chance to do something about those kinds of situations, I would. That’s really what sparked my interest in occupational health and health and safety, and my belief in the importance of education. It seemed obvious to me that was the way out of poverty, but for most people where I was growing up it just wasn’t an option. If you were lucky you got an apprenticeship (boys) or went into secretarial work (girls). No one had been to university or had any experience of it.
Life away from home
"At the age of four I was sent to a state boarding school for blind children.
"My parents had no say in it and being away from home at that age was a trauma in itself. The upside was that it made me tougher. You had to learn to do things: ride a bike, rollerskate, play cricket with a bell in the ball. It was sink or swim, and I decided to swim. Unfortunately the man who ran the secondary school didn’t think we could do exams, so I found myself at 16 with no qualifications. In response, a number of us started going to the local tech college in the evenings and taking courses. I started with Braille shorthand and typing. By the time I was 22 I’d got three A levels and gained a place at university.
My route into politics
"I became a Sheffield City Councillor in 1970 while still at university – studying politics and living it at the same time. I was inspired by my grandfather’s memories of the interwar period, by what had happened to my father and by a wonderful history teacher I had who’d taught me that, in every major struggle, someone has to get up and do something. I decided that someone would be me. It was an inspiring time, the period when Harold Wilson was elected as leader of the Labour Party and had begun to talk with great optimism about modernisation and the “white heat of technology”. I later became leader of Sheffield City Council (1980–1987) and in 1987 I was elected to Parliament as Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside.
"Mutuality and reciprocity are the pillars of my value system. At university I was part of a reading circle. Student volunteer readers helped me to access books and periodicals that would otherwise have been completely closed to me, because they simply hadn’t been translated into Braille, and in turn I would ask the tutors which parts of the reading list were essential and which were the vital chapters in key textbooks and pass that on. We all got something out of the arrangement.
The Labour Party
"The Labour governments I served in achieved some phenomenal things – and we got some things wrong. I don’t think we were centrist; we were mixed. But I can see that on occasion the leadership, including me, was too benign in dealing with those sources of power that eventually led to the global meltdown in 2008.
"What’s lacking now in the Labour Party is proper debate on policy. Instead, everything is viewed through the prism of whether you’re for or against the party leader. It’s ridiculous and makes it impossible to discuss political or personal values with real honesty and rigour.
"As a politician you’re always learning as you go along. When I look back now there are lots of things I’d do differently, but as Tony Blair said, “Just at the point you get to know how to do something, no one wants you to do it any more”. I’m most proud of my achievements in education, even if much of it has been set aside by subsequent governments: Sure Start, the Child Trust Fund, Education Maintenance Allowances and the expansion of higher education in general, as well as increased funding to further education, which has been a route to higher education and a better life for so many people, including myself.
The importance of citizenship
"Nelson Mandela is the most impressive figure I have ever encountered. I met him three times and felt very privileged to do so. Not just because of his unbelievable stoicism and resilience, but also for his conviction vision that you have to be able to settle differences, to forgive and to deal with the world as you find it.
"If citizenship had been taught really well in schools we’d have had more young people voting in the Brexit referendum, rather than now just wishing they’d voted! I’m president of the National Association for Citizenship Teaching. For me, citizenship is the glue that holds society together. It’s about engagement, active democracy and people understanding how the world works. A greater understanding of the role we can play in the political process as citizens is vital for the wellbeing of our democracy.
Citizenship is the glue that holds society together. It’s about engagement, active democracy and people understanding how the world works.
Lord David Blunkett
A variety of roles
"I’m no longer willing or able to start work at 7.30am. But I count myself incredibly lucky to be able to start work at 9.30, and still get something done. I wish everyone had the same options and choices later in life that I do. I try to organise my week so I can go up to Sheffield and work at the university on Thursdays and Fridays. I love being with young people, although I must say I find them far too respectful. They’re not bolshie like we were! I’m vice president of the Alzheimer’s Society too, and I’m involved with the Royal National Institute of Blind People too. I love the mix."