by Lee Hughes
My early life is unfortunately very similar to those who I grew up with. Life in post-industrial Barnsley isn’t rife with opportunities for those not wanting to work in call centres or in the building trades.
I left school with no qualifications and feeling disengaged with education. I never felt encouraged to achieve anything and just coasted along. After school, I began a path that would characterise most of my twenties. I was forced to live alone at a young age and drifted, inevitably some would argue, into taking heroin. With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve come to realise that I started down that path through frustration. I was frustrated at the missed opportunity to build a decent future for myself. I always knew I was bright, but I never felt encouraged.
I eventually kicked the habit through grit and determination and settled into a call centre job that grounded me. There was, however, still that underlying feeling of frustration underneath it all. After 4 or 5 years of coasting along and pushing my luck, I was having yet another disciplinary with my manager. She took me to one side and said, “If you don’t go and make something of yourself I’ll have to sack you”. That was the first time in 29 years that someone told me I was bright and it was amazing.
Within a week I signed up at Northern College. During my interview I explained I had a passion for Modern History and it was whilst discussing my favourite author on Trotsky that I was stopped and told, “Ok Lee you can stop now, you are where you belong. You can blossom here, you can finally be yourself.” That was the second time in my life that someone had said they believed in me. I could start to finally let go of all the negativity and frustration I had accumulated throughout my life.
Put simply, Northern College transformed my life. I started in September as a world-weary, frustrated and angry young man. I left in May supremely confident in myself, articulate, healthy and happy. To put into words what happened in that 9 months is extremely difficult. Imagine going through life angry at yourself, knowing you’re bright but not having an outlet for it, to then be in an environment where you are nurtured, encouraged and allowed to blossom. It was exhilarating to say the least. I truly felt that I could be myself. I was doing extremely well in my studies and felt at home.
Northern College allows students to gain the qualifications to better themselves, but also gives you so much more. I found myself in political debates with staff and students, questioning them and their experiences in life and ultimately becoming critical about my own views and experiences. I learnt to use my experiences as a drug user positively, instead of looking at my past as a negative, which helped me and those around me.
The option to live in at college during those 9 months helped me immeasurably. I found I could immerse myself in studies if I wanted. I could speak with staff, not just about academic work, but their views on life and experiences. Most importantly though, the option to live in at Northern College meant I was physically removed from all the hustle and bustle of normal life; I could concentrate on myself 100%.
Every time I felt I like had reached the peak of my abilities, Northern College raised the bar for me. They encouraged me and praised me in equal measure. I joined the Student Union and became President. I organised, I counselled and we were political; a far cry from my time living alone, taking drugs or working in the call centre. I wrote and gave speeches at awards ceremonies where the college had won. I spoke to the OFSTED inspectors with the principal. The outcome of the inspection was that the college was deemed outstanding. I even had the chance to visit Parliament and meet with other representatives of adult colleges. I was even being pushed by the college after I’d left. I was invited back to speak at the celebration event where I spoke last, following on from Jill Westerman, Malcolm Ball, Angela Smith and David Blunkett; who was very encouraging towards me saying I should seriously consider politics as a vocation.
Trying to put into words what happened during my 9 months at Northern College is very difficult. I know I went there with vague ideas about who I was and what I was about, but I left motivated and focused and ready to achieve my potential. I’ve completed my first year at Sheffield Hallam where I’m studying Modern History. I have a solid relationship with my son who now has the role model to look up to that I never had. I’m considering job options; either staying on at university and teaching at that level, or getting more involved in politics, something that 5 years ago I wouldn’t have even dreamt of. I’ve learnt how to believe in myself and Northern College was the catalyst that triggered that belief.
Today the government is presiding over cuts to the adult education system and it baffles me. It baffles me that the opportunity to rebuild and transform lives is at risk of being taken away. There is a whole generation of people like me, people that need at the very least, the option to go back into education. If a Barnsley lad like me, who has been back in education for 3 years – albeit at a working class college and university – can see the flaws in potentially shutting off people’s chances at self-improvement, then surely those who preside over the cuts, who were educated at the ‘better universities’, can see that as well.