John’s story takes in four generations and I am happy to retell it here as he described it to me.
Read it then multiply it countless times.
His story is set in Sunderland, an industrial city in the land of the three rivers – Tyne, Wear and Tees – in North East England.
Sunderland lies at the mouth of the river Wear. Currently it is the home to Nissan, where the Japanese company assembles more cars than are made in Italy. Its past was very different. It was a town once described as the largest shipbuilding town in the world, and it made the Doxford engines to power them. Even though most were built in the States, the world-famous Liberty ship was created, produced and manufactured at the yards of J.L. Thompson and Sons based at North Sands to keep Great Britain fed and armed during World War II. It was a port for the Durham coalfields with coal mines, pit heaps and many colliery villages nearby.
Contemporaneously with Thomas Edison in the States, Joseph Swan, born in Sunderland, invented the incandescent light bulb– as well as electric safety lamps for miners. Sunderland had a centuries old association with glass – glass for the Crystal Palace in London, for many homes in the UK, stained glass for cathedrals, Pyrex, and glass bottles too. It also boasted paper making and a ropery. Now all there is, the National Glass Centre and a modest amount of decorative glass making. The 11,000 computer generated panes of glass – every pane angled and different in size – that clad the Shard, the tallest building in Europe, were fabricated in Holland.
Sunderland’s industrial heritage now form museum exhibits. Politicians, Whitehall, management and unions have a lot to answer for.
Also relevant, it had a Polytechnic, a technical school, a grammar school, now a tertiary college, amongst its educational provision. It was a time when there were State Scholarships for the brightest students and other scholarships and bursaries as well, and plenty of apprenticeships.
Now it has comprehensive schools and a large new University with scholarships offsetting less than a half of the fees.
Let me return to John. He had five brothers and two sisters.
Matthew, his father worked in the shipyards and his mother in the ropery and, when she had a moment, she helped out in her mother’s little store.
In the nineteen twenties when the shipyards lacked orders, to feed his family, he used to take a cart round the back streets selling the buckets of coal at 1p or 2p each (old money) and herring too. I can myself recall the town cry “Calla herrin” (fresh herring) in the back lane to my home. John recalls helping his father by filling sacks of coal ready for his next round.
John himself went to a technical school, later qualified as a naval architect and then went on to open a highly successful business in heating and air conditioning.
Matthew, his oldest brother, was apprenticed in Pyrex, learned glass blowing and then opened his own business making and selling glass products to laboratories and industry.
William helped his father, and his cart was the precursor to a successful haulage company he developed with the help of his mother.
George was apprenticed in Sunderland Forge and Engineering but later joined his brother William as a director in the haulage business.
Ernest, also a product of the technical school and an engineering apprenticeship became a chartered engineer in the army rising to the rank of Captain, then worked for Bristol Engineering, and then Cummings Engine Company until he opened a highly successful business manufacturing and installing double glazing on an industrial scale.
Andrew became Northern Director of the Finance Hire purchase arm of the GUS group, a major UK company. His two sons products of Bede Grammar School , enjoy high achievement . Neil the older follows a career in Law and is now a Judge on the Northern Circuit, meanwhile Bruce his younger brother Is Director of Psychiatric Care in one of the major regions of the NHS.
Margaret married an engineer draughtsman and later moved to Rugby to join English Electric. Their son, David, won a scholarship to Rugby School, as did their daughter Janice. David was an Olympic standard swimmer, he was top of his year in Cambridge with his law degree and went on to be a judge in the Civil Courts. Meanwhile Janice, his sister, specialised in medical research becoming a professor of pathology at prestigious UCH in London, her expertise is the structure of the brain.
Dorothy, her younger sIster, married a Chief Engineer has two sons Paul and John.
Paul is a graduate of Newcastle University where studied Business and Marketing is currently Vice President of a global food manufacturing company responsible for factories placed around the world including UK. His brother John won a scholarship to Princeton University where he graduated in Literature and currently works in higher education in Ottawa and is an author.
There is however a sting in the tale. John has two grand children. One obtained a Masters in business and marketing and has found a job in the supermarket Morrison’s head office. The other got first class honours in computer engineering but still can’t find a job for which he trained. The latest figures I have seen suggest there are thirty nine graduates not currently finding jobs for which they were trained for every one finding one.
When you read this story you decide which generates more social mobility:
1. Homogenising children to correct social inequalities as your political imperative,
2. Promoting social advancement by meeting different individual educational needs?
Isn’t it better to forget pseudo equality when it means equality in debt and dependency?
John’s message to his grand children and their generation is “If you want to succeed, you can succeed.” Aren’t those the children society should be bending over backwards to help? Social mobility will then look after itself.
We spend far too much time celebrating winning the war over Germany 70 years after the end of it while Germany wins the peace, not just the World Cup. I have every reason not to like to acknowledge this, but every reason to do so.