Sir Keith Burnett: Why I’m speaking up in defence of Rotherham

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I AM sitting in an attractive cathedral square drinking the best iced caramel latte that I have ever tasted. I have just come from a meeting at a global research centre where a business bureau from South Korea has been looking into investment nearby. The leader of the council welcomed the visitors in Korean using words and sporting an accent that delighted the visitors.

I have bought some particularly fine small batch-roasted coffee along with some artisan confectionery for my children. The other Sunday, I ate at what must surely be the finest fish restaurant in the land while wearing a new jacket brought in a nearby factory outlet store for half the price I could get it elsewhere.

Where am I?

Rotherham. That much-maligned community of working people in South Yorkshire and which the BBC’s Panorama has again been highlighting to people who have never visited it, the darkest hours of this place, and evils done to those who were most vulnerable, left unchallenged by those who should have known and done better. There is only one story most people know about this town. Rotherham is becoming a national watchword for abuse.

Yet this place, like all the others I know, is in fact a mixture of good and evil. My family home is in Oxford, another city in which a network of abuse has come to light. Indeed I once opened a newspaper to read about trafficking which had been taking place in a basement flat of a house I passed as I walked my children to school each day.

The difference is that Oxford has other images in the public mind. At its heart is one of the most affluent and privileged universities in the world. The public perception of Oxford is less abuse, more Inspector Morse.

So what of the future of the children of Rotherham? Some, like Jamie Oliver, famously tried to make a difference. In his Ministry of Food programme he travelled to Rotherham to introduce cooking lessons to families he described as experiencing ‘a new kind of poverty’. He called it ‘a poverty of knowledge’.

Rotherham bared its failings to the nation, but Jamie Oliver never wanted to pick on one town. He said: “It was a snapshot of Britain.” He tried to introduce cookery classes, a centre for education. But some argued what really stuck was a precursor to Benefit Street programming, an image of ‘grim up North’.

So what now? We cannot undo the harm that has been done to the children of this community by an evil that we all want to crush. But we must not do even more damage in the attempt to purge this part of our society from harm. We must believe in the possibility of change, the potential of young people everywhere and the possibility of healing in a community.

This brings me back to what there is in Rotherham that gives me hope. In Rotherham, on the site of the Orgreave miners’ conflict, three decades later something extraordinary has happened. The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre is a university-owned innovation district with over 100 industrial partners carrying out state of the art research. It is a high-tech ‘skunk works’ for industry large and small to be able to finesse manufacturing ideas, make breakthroughs in production which gain orders and create jobs. A national facility, it draws admirers from around the world.

It is also home to the UK’s most prestigious advanced manufacturing apprentice training centre. Companies need more than high-tech research. They want skills to match. The AMRC now has 600 young people at various stages in an advanced apprenticeship which offers routes to manufacturing engineering degrees and beyond.

I know these young people. They are the talented, bright-eyed children of Rotherham and South Yorkshire. They are every bit as able as the children of Oxfordshire. But for them to reclaim and shape their own futures they need opportunity, employment, education.

I took one of our apprentices with me to London to meet our regional MPs. This talented teenager had never been to London, never on a train. Now Boeing has named him Apprentice of the Year and is flying him to Seattle to see their operations..

The children of Rotherham must be more than media fodder. Certainly, let’s address all the recommendations of the enquires into abuse. But it can’t stop there. If we really care about this place, we will also see its potential, its promise.

We should care too much about those young people to only feel moral outrage... and then walk away.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett is vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield.