Thank you. It is a privilege to be here with you.
Occasions like these are the most humbling times to be a Mayor and an MP.
The political world can sometimes cause cynicism,
but standing here, I am reminded that there is hope.
Hope for the future.
Barnsley has a rich heritage of its sons and daughters stepping out into the world and shaping a better tomorrow.
It is now your turn to follow in their footsteps.
The opportunity that lies ahead of you has been made possible by the wonderful people at the heart of this exceptional institution… everyone from the cleaning staff, maintenance team, kitchen crew, teachers, leadership, and many others.
And so, I’d like to pay tribute to the dedication of all the staff here. Your hard work made today a reality.
As I sat down to write my remarks, I sought inspiration from a graduation ceremony at Morehouse College in America.
The keynote speaker there – a billionaire philanthropist – made a startling pledge…
That he was going to write off the student debt of that year’s graduates.
Well Barnsley College, alas I can’t make that same pledge today, but I’ve thought long and hard about what I can give you… advice I have taken and lessons I have learned over a quarter of a century in public service.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of my arrival at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst – the training establishment for fledgling British Army officers.
Before I made the trip south, I bought myself a new suit –
off-the-peg, from Marks and Spencer’s.
I thought I looked quite smart. However, I soon discovered how badly I’d misjudged the situation.
My suit was “not sufficiently officer-like”, and I was told, in no uncertain terms, to smarten myself up!
My dress sense, or lack of it, meant that I struck up a friendship with another lad – Dave – who shared my comprehensive school background and taste in suits.
Naturally, we became known as the
“Marks and Spencer’s Brothers”.
When I reflect on mine and Dave’s time in the Army, I now know that the cut of our suit had no influence on our soldiering ability.
That kind of senseless snobbery, sadly, is something that some of you will face in your lives –
whether that is on your first day at University,
or starting a new job,
you may encounter people from more privileged backgrounds, who have been preparing their whole lives and who might come across as more polished than you.
What I learned from my experience was invaluable:
First, M&S do a great range in affordable suits!
More importantly, we will all feel like an imposter at some point, but you can’t let it define you and your journey.
Whether that’s getting into a top university, your dream job,
or even walking the corridors of Westminster – you have earned the right to be there, do not let anyone question your worth.
After completing my training at Sandhurst, I joined The Parachute Regiment. One of my early roles was working directly for the fearsome General Sir Mike Jackson in Pristina during the campaign in Kosovo.
Now, as many of you are no doubt already aware – your first day in a new job can be stressful.
On my first day, I was tasked with getting someone onto a helicopter. No big deal.
Only the someone just happened be the Prime Minister at the time… Tony Blair!
The plan was to lead him and his team through a small dark muddy wood and onto the waiting helicopter.
Imagine my horror when – as we approached the helicopter – it took off into the night sky before I was able to put the PM inside.
My heart sank. It suddenly became a very big deal.
In that moment, I took the decision to reroute.
So off we went again… back into another larger, darker, muddier wood to meet the helicopter.
This time, thankfully – the chopper stayed put.
I bundled the Prime Minister and his team in and gave the order for the helicopter to take off – relieved that it was over but dreading what was coming from my new boss.
I thought my first day would be my last day.
The General stood there looking at the space recently vacated by the Prime Minister’s helicopter while I waited silently, and fearfully for his judgment.
Eventually he spoke… words that have stayed with me ever since:
“Thank God it wasn’t the Queen!”
And that’s the toned-down version!
I learned a few things that day:
You can’t always trust a helicopter to stay put!!!
But, most importantly always have a Plan B!!
Maybe your results this year went to plan and set you up for the next stage of your journey – and that’s great.
But if things didn’t go as you hoped – just like that helicopter in Pristina – it’s not the end of the world.
Take a moment to reflect and take advice… from your parents, families and teachers – people you trust. They are there to support you and help you find your own Plan B.
Ten years ago, life served up something that meant I couldn’t keep soldiering.
Now, I’d always been passionate about politics.
But there’s no doubt that it was a gigantic leap of faith to put my name forward to be the MP for Barnsley Central.
“You haven’t a chance” – rang the political advice of those in the know.
I listened to the advice.
And completely ignored it!
It is an episode that sticks in my mind for a couple of reasons:
Even in what might seem like a dark today, there is always the hope of a brighter tomorrow.
But also, be prepared to embrace new opportunities.
Your generation is tasked with solving the greatest challenges in human history…
The Climate Crisis.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Education is central to your success because it enables;
hope to triumph over fear.
Agency to triumph over paralysis.
Empathy to triumph over indifference.
The start you have received here will set you up for life…
seize the opportunity with both hands;
and make your mark on an ever-changing world.
So, what’s next?
Today marks the end of one chapter in your lives, but also the beginning of a new one.
If you can get through the last 18 months, you can be confident that you can achieve anything you put your mind to.
When I reflect on what we have collectively gone through this past year, I remember a quote from an American author
Zora Neale Hursten:
“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
This year has done both.
Or, as Kylie Jenner put it:
“This year is really about, realizing stuff.”
I’ll let you judge which you find more inspiring.
I would like to say a final thank you to everyone who made today possible:
Yiannis Koursis and the college staff who have kept the show on the road the last year ─ as I always say:
you never forget a good teacher!
your parents, carers, families ─
and you, the incredible students.
I want to wish you all the very best in your exciting new chapters.
You’re the future now.
Make the most of it.