On Wednesday March 14 there were many great speeches in the Palace of Westminster. The Commons were debating Trident - there was a water cannon on College Green. The Lord's were debating their own extinction. And in the Members' Dinning Room at 4.30 I got up to address and audience of Royality, Lord's and Ladies, Ministers, Members of Parliament, an assortment of minor celebrities and many disabled students who had just been given a grant by The Snowdon Award Scheme - a charity that helps disabled people back into education.
This is what I said.
Ladies and Gentleman
It’s really great to be here today and speak with so many people that have recently started such a varied and diverse range of courses of study. It is exciting being with people making a new start and making positive changes, a new beginning. It’s so positive and life affirming. Though I expect with your excitement there are doubts and fears.
But so many people here have struggled and overcome so much already.
Here is a bit of my story. I hope it will be an encouragement.
I left school at 16 in 1975 with no qualifications at all. I remember walking out of the school gates for the last time with a huge smile on my face and victoriously telling myself that I would never open the door of education again.
However I returned to full time education just two years later. I was recovering from a serious illness and when I went back it was to a further education college. There I started an academic journey that has redefined and changed my life completely.
At first I didn’t know what I could do so I enrolled on a basic pre O level vocational course. At the end -clutching a handful of credits and distinctions - I asked my lecturers well what should I do now – and they replied, why not try some O Level’s. And when I’d completed those I looked around wide-eyed with a beaming smile and asked again – what should I do now. Another lecturer answered well why not try some A Levels now David.
As I was completing the first year of A Levels – everyone around me seemed obsessed with universities and application forms. I had some struggles with the recurring disease but I asked again what shall I do after this. and one of the lecturers said rather impatiently I thought – you should try a degree. And so I did.
I was the first person in my family to study for a degree. It meant leaving home. It meant setting up a life independent of my family. It meant spending money my parents did not really have. And more scarily It meant taking my own responsibility for managing the disease and the damage it had left by myself.
But there seemingly out of the blue – suddenly – there was the Snowdon Award Scheme. It gave me an award that helped me be independent in those first tentative steps away from home - studying, buying books, fares back home for hospital appointments, and desperately trying to buy food that I could make into something edible.
[It was a difficult first term. And I remember sitting in a student bar on a cold January evening in the ruins of my first university relationship. I was surrounded by fit and healthy people that could party all night and walk without thinking about it. I felt that I wanted to go home. I wanted to stop and start the degree again. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.]
One night very very late we were sitting in my room drinking port and listening to David Bowie. A good friend said to me I’d make a good teacher. And I immediately thought of the Further Education. What they had given me, I could give to others: a second chance at education and the enthusiasm and wonder of learning.
And so when I completed my degree I went on to train to be a lecturer in Further Education. and that is what I have been for the last twenty years a: a lecturer in Further Education And sometimes I teach on that same basic vocational course that I first studied back in 1977. Along with becoming married, raising children, I also write a ridiculous amount of poetry – some of which is about illness and recovery.
Finally. I remember being sent an invitation to what must have been the first Snowdon Award Ceremony back in 1981. And I remember very clearly declining to attend. I remember I felt quite awkward, clumsy and very shy. I think I felt overawed and out of place.
So it is quite ironic really that 25 years later I would be given this rather wonderful and public opportunity to say thank you to Lord Snowdon, the supporters, sponsors and all the people working behind the scenes at the Snowdon Award Scheme.
And great also to have this opportunity to wish you success and satisfaction in all the diverse courses you are undertaking.
It was great fun.