Baroness Shirley Williams receives Edge Hill University honorary award

A politician who has dedicated her career to improving education standards for all has received an honorary doctorate from Edge Hill University.

The former MP for Crosby, Secretary of State for Education and Science, journalist and academic received the award for her services to education and commitment to public services.

Her award was conferred from the University’s Chancellor Professor Tanya Byron in a ceremony on the Ormksirk Campus.

Upon receiving the award, Baroness Williams, said: “I’d like to thank Edge Hill University for my welcome and also for the contribution it has made to education and in raising the aspirations of so many.”

“I first came to Edge Hill in the 1970s when it was primarily known as a teacher training college. Some years before, the birth rate had dropped dramatically, by almost 25%, and as Secretary of State for Education, my department had to close almost a fifth of the 100 plus teacher training colleges across the country.

“It was a very painful experience – meeting many of the wonderful college principals who had achieved so much in their institution made it a difficult task. I’m glad that I had the wisdom to ensure Edge Hill stayed open, which allowed it go on and become the distinguished university it has. I remember being very impressed when I first visited in the 1970s – it was innovative and full of ideas.

Baroness Williams had a clear path into her career, with a strong political heritage and parents who saw public engagement as a duty and communicated this to a young Shirley.  It was just a couple of years after graduating from Oxford that she was selected to run in a bye-election for Labour in 1954.

“There was a time when I was advised against a career in politics,” says Shirley. “A school adviser recommended two careers choices for me – a teacher or personal secretary. Apparently, the latter was the best of two if you could find an interesting man to work for!

“For graduates who wish to follow a career in politics, I’d say find an alternative job first. It is wise to have a genuine interest in one area, to get know it well and then let that feed into your politics. I was a journalist for the Financial Times and the economic knowledge I picked up there was invaluable and helped me greatly.”     

Baroness Williams is most notably remembered for serving in James Callaghan’s Labour government in the late 1970s until she became disillusioned with her party’s move to the left, forming the ‘Gang of Four’ to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

Her family background, her role as Secretary of State for Education and Science and her time as Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords personifies her commitment to providing educational opportunities for all, particularly for women and the socially disadvantaged.

“Widening access to education is something that’s very close to my heart. I personally believe that everyone can be raised to a higher level through learning. The journey of learning should never end – it is knowledge that helps you to stay ahead.”

Baroness Shirley Williams was the first woman to chair the Oxford University Labour Club in 1950 and after graduating in Philosophy, Politics and Economics she began her career as a journalist, working for the Daily Mirror and the Financial Times. In 1960, she became General Secretary of the Fabien Society.

In 1964, Shirley became the MP for Hitchin and served the constituency for 15 years. She gained junior ministerial experience in a variety of roles between 1964 and 1970 but it was after the defeat of Edward Heath in 1974 that she made her mark as Secretary of State for Education and Science between 1976 and 1979.  During this period Shirley’s commitment to social justice and equality of opportunity shone through in, for example, the consolidation of comprehensive schooling in the state sector.

In 1981, Shirley was one of the four founders of the new SDP. She became the first elected MP for that party when she won the Merseyside seat of Crosby in the same year in a bye-election. 

Baroness Williams continues to see politics as a rational debate where commitments must be evidence-based.  It was in keeping with that orientation that she took a post at the highly distinguished Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1988.  As both a politician and an academic, she has written several books, including an autobiography Climbing the Bookshelves and has also held posts at Cambridge, Princeton, Berkeley and Chicago.

Williams has been a fixture of the British media – television, radio, print – for decades, and is indeed one of the most quotable politicians of the past 50 years.

Throughout her career, she has based her commitments on a deep-seated respect for her fellow human beings whatever their colour, creed or class.  In the national arena this was perhaps most clearly seen in her passionate advocacy for excellence in state schooling.  Internationally she has been a strong champion for democracy and human rights, helping to draft constitutions in Russia, Ukraine and South Africa.

Her interest and commitment to education has continued, and she serves as Chair of Judges of the UK Teaching Awards.