Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

It takes a city …

I have lived and worked across the best and worst of what Bristol has to offer. At its worst Bristol was the city that seemed to offer families like mine little hope of a future that was anything more than the backgrounds we came from. I was one of two brown-skinned children of a single white women. We were poor. We lived on an out-of-town housing estate called Lawrence Weston before moving to Lawrence Hill in the inner city. Both remain among the most deprived wards in the UK sitting in a city with some of the wealthiest wards in Europe. At its best Bristol was the city in which I found the support and opportunity I needed to escape my hopelessness, to get to university, to make a contribution to my community and city and take a life journey that took me to Yale University’s World Fellows Program and the offer of admission to Harvard Kennedy School.

The pity – I would call it an injustice – is that my story is unusual despite the fact that I know my abilities are not. I still live in Lawrence Hill. I see the kids that hang around on Stapleton Road, once described as the most dangerous street in Britain. I see their potential, the charisma, entrepreneurialism, the leadership, the resilience all going to waste and I have heard them express their hopelessness when they share their belief that the only equal opportunity industry there is for them is in crime. I saw my own peers go down that route and I am currently working to ensure my 17-year-old half-brother does not go that way.

I had an incredible time at Yale. There was lots to draw on but my overwhelming experience was of an institution that had overtly set out its stall to produce world-class leaders. Everything about Yale looked for, nurtured and expected leadership and its students respond accordingly. The university was proud of its record of producing global leaders including three of the last four presidents. And they were explicit about their intention to educate another. I returned to Bristol with a challenge. If a university could do this, why not a city? Could a city, as a city, develop a culture that proactively identified, invested in and produced leaders? What would be the impact on the city, its residents and the way it was perceived around the world, if became known as a place that produced leaders?

That is why, in July, I, along with visionary faculty Bristol University and the University of the West of England, will launch the Bristol Leadership Programme. Each year around a dozen young people from poor backgrounds who have shown high ability and high aspiration will take part in a two-week programme which will develop that aspiration, assure them in their promise and help them turn their global goals into practical life plans. We are unapologetically bold in the level of our aspiration for these young people. We aim to give a formative experience to a future government ministers, World Bank economist and judges.

When we initially floated this we were accused of being elitist and told a community-level leadership programme might be more appropriate. It’s a view we vehemently rejected. Quite aside from the fact that the critics failed to remember that the programme targets young people from poor backgrounds, it shows they’ve failed to grasp the scale of aspiration people from poorer backgrounds can have for themselves and their children. We are not content with getting our children from an E to a D. This is about ensuring those students who could have stratospheric life trajectories are not held back by their socioeconomic backgrounds. They need to know the options and have life plans that make those trajectories real. These sorts of young people are too easily under-served by schools and other city institutions, not least because they don’t appear on anyone’s radar for causing problems. In normal circumstances, young people like these will do OK. The problem is they could have done great.

It has never been enough for those in boardrooms or courtrooms to sit head in hands, bemoaning the loss of opportunity, the loss of the young generation. Neither is it right that we accept a culture in which leadership, like wealth and opportunity, creates itself in its own image. We must challenge the idea that it’s just the way things work, the inevitable outcome of educational attainment and opportunity running on a social gradient. But it’s a challenge that requires coordinated intervention because countercultures do not happen by chance and opportunity is not satisfactorily shared through trickledown. The model we are bringing forward in Bristol is an antidote to the tendency toward uniformity of leadership – and an opportunity to grow something which is both inviting for young people but also sustainable. It’s a model we hope to see develop as part of the Bristol way of doing business and an approach we hope to see replicated in other core cities.

The Bristol Leadership Programme is not simply about the liberal causes of social justice and equality. It’s about the vibrancy, growth and resilience of our cities. If postcode or parental backgrounds remain the most accurate indicators of where someone will end up in life, we have a problem. We need to seek out the talented, the aspirational, the grafters and we need to support them. We need to nurture them, inspire them, and we need to recognise that, in doing so, we can help build city and national narratives we can all own. Without that, we’ll have a weak society that remains fertile for the sort of disintegration we witnessed in last summer’s riots.

It’s time to do something different.


Marvin Rees is an NHS programme manager and is currently on the Labour party’s Future Candidates Programme and tweets @marvinrees


Photo: crabchick

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Marvin Rees


  • Hi Marvin,

    This sounds like a great idea. Slough does not have a university, but I think I might be able to develop something similar working with our planned new higher education provision, which will be a kind of university for work. Can I come and visit your programme to see it in action, find out how you recruited people and see the curriculum. I’d be prepared to give a talk too if you think the students would be interested and it would be useful

    Fiona Mactaggart MP

  • Absolutely agree. Not only will this help the young peopel involved directly but having role models is so important. Only the middle class sociologists who have at times seemed to take over the left miss the point about the importance of aspiration. I was the first in my family to go to university and there was a link to being the first not to fail the 11 plus. Even around the time of the strike local miners would make sacrifices to try and prevent their kids ending up in the pit. Its always been a part of our culture that we should recognise and embrace. And where the community is seen to help you on the way up then there has to be a greater chance of that success story putting something back in later.

  • Hi Marvin,

    The Young People in Bristol are incredibly lucky to have your belief in them. I work as a volunteer with the lovely Young People in Barton Hill, there is so much that they do and can achieve. Young People deserve Hope, LET’S FULFIL THAT HOPE…

  • Hi Sue
    Get in touch. If you are in Barton Hill, those are the kind of young people we are hoping to work with.

  • Thanks Dean. I know this story you tell. My grandfather was the son of a miner (Merthyr Tydfill). His father swore none of his children would go down the mines, that they would get something better. My grandfather passed this aspiration on to me (he was ultimately too poor to attend university) and my Nan tells me how much joy it gave him to see me graduate. It was, in some sense, him through me.

  • Hi Fiona. Great to hear from you. You would be very welcome. Please private message me on Twitter and we can exchange details. Launch day is July 2. We are going to learns lessons from this first one undoubtedly. Ultimately, have a vision for all Core Cities running with programmes like this. Look forward to talking. Marvin

  • Marvin stop using easton as a spring board to become a mp, these people have real concerns and problems far different from your experience of working at the nhs,

  • I agree,. You do not know the comunity or have any background in social activism here or lawrehnce hill that we have grown up
    all our life. The disadvantage people you talk about will in the next few years be the future leaders of this city just wait and watch. There are many that will take the helm soon and change the politics of the future rather than using disadvantage as a springboard anywhere.

  • So it’s just better to keep everyone down – ‘Sod the lot of ’em’ , ‘Social mobility for everyone or for none at all’. This is exactly the pervasive thinking that maintains the mantra that ‘some are more equal than others’. Very poor journalism by Zoe Williams (which is a shame as I do like her) – It’s not joined up thinking. Not giving gifted children opportunities is just as regrettable as not addressing other special educational needs. Such advantages would be a given in wealthier communities. – for less gifted children.

    In a community of finite resources what else is she offering… I think this project sounds positive. It will, of course, largely depend on how it’s rolled out.

  • Furthermore – I hardly consider this project analogous to that purported offered by Clegg as reported by Williams. This is not about a brain drain from comprehensive education – it is about offering opportunities to those who are willing and able but would otherwise not be able to attain. I consider that, in fact, without such positive duties on the State to promote this kind social mobility we will be forever stuck with a cabiniet comprising only 22% women, 1 person of ethic minority and a lot of public schoolboys.

  • I love this. I’m tired of people telling me we need generational change, its an excuse not to succeed today. I’m tired of waiting.

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