Education, aspiration … and Mister Byrite: David Lammy Fellowship

The Rt Hon David Lammy MP was awarded a Fellowship at Birkbeck’s spring graduation for his ongoing work to push for lifelong learning, as well as his contribution to the College’s outreach work. Here is the speech he gave as he accepted the honour at the ceremony staged at the Royal National Hotel

“It was 25 years ago that I stood just across the way, in SOAS. I was wearing a Mister Byrite suit – a very shiny silvery suit and I was with my mother and older brother and I became the first in my family to get a degree and I could never ever have imagined that 25 years later, I would be back in the family of the esteemed University of London. I used to come and drink here at Birkbeck and to hang out and I would never have imagined that this would be the case!

“Throughout my political career I have been obsessed with adult learning and with the ‘campaign’ if you like, to bring back night schools to our country. When my father left and my mother had a very small income as a home-help, she got an elbow from a work colleague and encouragement to study in the evenings so she could increase her salary, get a slightly better job and provide for me and my four siblings. She’s not with us any longer but she, I know, would be very, very pleased that this moment has arrived, and I’m so grateful to be admitted into the Fellowship – it feels like Freemasonry or something! – and I am very pleased to join the club and to be associated with a pre-eminent and wonderful institution.

“You will have got a sense that written right through me is a commitment to working men and women and to working families, it’s as simple as that. And so my association with Birkbeck is very important to me and symbolises everything I believe, and the pioneers that set up this great, great institution were spot on. They were radical, they cared about a different economy and they believed passionately that we had to break down some of those old hierarchies that exist and I believe that we still have to do that in our society and there is so much more to do.

“Over the years that I have had to move in so many different circles, and particularly in recent times, on issues of knife crime, gun crime, poverty, gangs, Grenfell and Windrush. I’ve learnt a few things and I want to share them with you briefly. There are five ingredients to success, I’d say to all of the graduates in this room – and I’m sure that many of the families in this room will recognise these five ingredients. They are education, employment, aspiration, parenting and community. And if those five things are going on you are probably somewhere in Surrey. No, seriously, if those five things are going on you’re in a successful environment. But they’re not always going on at the same time. Why this is such a special moment and why this is such a special institution, is because it runs across all those five things.

“At its heart is education, but not just education for an elite. That’s why I give Oxford, Cambridge and the Russell Group such a hard time. Birkbeck is not just an education for an elite but an education for everybody. Employment, because of the outcomes when you come through Birkbeck – to get a better job, to succeed in your life. I have a family member who is currently doing computing and IT here, and I have seen the way his shoulders have lifted up and the way he aspires and looks forward to getting that better job. Aspiration, because all of us in this room have that aspiration and all human beings have aspirations. One of the things I think has struck the public during this Windrush debacle is the idea that there were aspirations thwarted because of pernicious immigration policies. Parenting – as much as my mother could support me, I did not have parents who were super-educated and could sit with me and help me revise, so I am really grateful to the teachers and institutions that have been in loco parentis to me and I’m sure there’s lots of that going on with academics at Birkbeck. And of course community. It’s not just about us, it’s not just about a selfish desire for you the individual to achieve we’re living in a very peculiar age where we even name selfishness, a ‘selfie’.  It’s about us, it’s about collective, it’s about community and I am very grateful and honoured to join this very special community.”

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