Sixth-formers from Sutton’s oldest school grilled two local leaders on everything from Brexit to university tuition fees in a fascinating question and answer session.
Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, joined Sutton Coldfield MP Andrew Mitchell for the event on Friday, January 18 at Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School, which dates back to the 16th century.
The two leading Conservatives met some of the school’s brightest students over lunch with headteacher Dominic Robson, before facing the entire 200-strong sixth form for the Question Time-style event in the school hall.
First, Mr Street – who as figurehead of the West Midlands Combined Authority brings together Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley, Solihull and Sandwell – told pupils how investment is driving a renaissance across the region.
Then, it was over to the pupils to put Mr Mitchell and Mr Street on the spot for an hour, with probing questions, expertly compered by the President of the School Council, 18-year-old Angus Carter.
The good-natured grilling included Mr Mitchell being asked how more young people could be encouraged to engage with politics.
He said: “While young people are not joining political parties in the way they once did, they are joining organisations that reflect their beliefs and enthusiasms – charities, green schemes, specific interests that they really care about.
“The challenge for politicians is to make themselves more relevant through the ways that young people communicate. That is not going to be through party meetings and signing people up to political parties in the way it used to happen.”
Mr Street – a former managing director of John Lewis – was asked about the decline of the high street, and the closure of Sutton town centre’s Marks and Spencer store.
In response, he asked the pupils how many of them had received a parcel delivery over Christmas – with around 90% raising their hands.
“Here is the problem,” he said. “We can’t put this genie back in the bottle. So, we’ve got to think about what the high street is going to be in the future. Clearly, it matters to people greatly.
“We need to see more people living in town centres, I want to see more start-up hubs bringing new businesses into town centres and we need to make sure that more public services are situated there. We need to make sure they are attractive and safe too.
“Sutton Coldfield has a huge advantage, with an affluent and really caring population and we should be doing better, but the city council have not put the imagination in place to make the most of this town centre,” he added.
Other questions from pupils covered subjects as diverse as the cost of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022, who would be the next leader of the Conservatives and international aid.
After the event, Mr Street said: “It was a brilliant afternoon. It was lovely to be able to tell our story to the people who are going to be the most important beneficiaries of the story – young people with hope and aspiration for the West Midlands.”
Mr Mitchell said: “It is always such a pleasure to visit Vesey, one of Sutton Coldfield’s great schools, and to see how the school makes progress in leaps and bounds on so many different fronts.
“The questions from the very gifted sixth-form students were excellent, interesting and very probing.”
Headteacher Dominic Robson thanked the two politicians for giving a ‘great insight’ into key issues.
“Andrew Mitchell has always been a great supporter of Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School – as he is of all Sutton’s secondary schools – and often comes in to see us,” he said.
“Andy Street is a breath of fresh air and is so positive, dynamic and optimistic about the future of our area. It was very inspiring.”