David Blunkett: How the former Sheffield MP escaped deprivation to become the first in his family to go to university

Blind from birth, it was education that helped Lord David Blunkett escape the ravages of poverty to serve as an MP and spend 28 years shaping policy in Parliament.

Now the Sheffield politician, who has sat in the House of Lords since 2015, is among a flurry of famous faces to be celebrated and championed as the first in their families to attend university.

The University UK campaign looks to highlight the impact of 'first in the family' students, including England footballer Beth Mead, Nobel Prize winner Sir Chris Pissarides and actor Amit Shah.

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New research under the 100 Faces campaign highlights the "transformative" impact of university on ambition and confidence, as well as the challenge they face in funding.

Lord David Blunkett.Lord David Blunkett.
Lord David Blunkett.

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "The experiences of students who are the first in their families to have been to university tell a powerful story.

"In this country you are still twice as likely to go to university if you are from the wealthiest background, compared to the least wealthy. That’s not right."

And Lord Blunkett has spoken of the change it helped him to make.

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"I grew up in one of the most deprived parts of Britain," he said. "I know the problems which inner-city children face.

"In today’s world, learning has become the key to economic prosperity, social cohesion and personal fulfilment.”

Born blind in Sheffield in 1947, Lord Blunkett had a challenging childhood. His parents were forced to send him to a council boarding school for the visually impaired, while his father died in an industrial accident in 1959, leaving his family poverty stricken. 

Offered a vocational education, it was while working as a shorthand typist for the gas board that Blunkett would go on to become a trade union representative, studying at evening classes and on day release, and then graduating from the University of Sheffield in 1972.

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He became a councillor while still at university, and then the area’s youngest council leader, before being elected MP for Sheffield Brightside in 1987 and serving stints in the cabinet as both Education and Home Secretary.

The success of students like Lord Blunkett and that of Whitby-born footballer Beth Mean is testament to the “extraordinary” role education can play, Universities UK (UUK) says today.

With financial provision "dwindling" and the cost of living rising, the body is calling for government to reinstate maintenance grants and increase support for future students.

Without financial support, new research released today suggests, four in 10 such graduates couldn’t have afforded to go to university at all, equivalent to around 1.1m people in England and Wales. The campaign hopes to highlight the need for access to more support.

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Prof Koen Lamberts, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, said Lord Blunkett serves as a "fantastic" role model and as an example of what can be achieved.

"Earning a degree can be a transformative experience,” he said. “It opens doors to new career paths, fosters intellectual growth, and equips students with the skills to be a leader in their community.”