Government education boss inspired by Sunderland students’ stories

(l-r) Jonathan Wharton, Mark Walsh, Jonathan Slater

Published on 15 March 2019

Jonathan Slater, Permanent Secretary for the Department of Education, paid a visit to the University of Sunderland this week where he heard inspiring student stories.

Mr Slater spent time with staff, as well as current and former students during a flying visit to the University’s Shackleton House on Thursday.

The education boss later said: “It was inspiring to hear from students at the University Of Sunderland about the support they get from the University to genuinely achieve their potential.”

As well as University Vice Chancellor Sir David Bell, Mr Slater met those who had transformed their lives through programmes they are taking – or have taken.

Among those introduced to the visitor were former Naval officer Mark Walsh.

Read Mark’s story below:


Aged just 16, Mark Walsh was told he was too young to fulfil his dream of joining the Royal Navy like generations of his family before him.

The teenager faced waiting another year until he turned 17.

“I’d finished school and didn’t have anywhere near the qualifications I wanted,” recalls Mark, now 40.

“My dad, Laurance, had been in the Navy. In fact, an interesting family fact is that someone from every generation of my family since Nelson had been in the service.

“You could say the sea was in my blood and the idea of the world being out there to be discovered was something very exciting to me.”

So at 17 Mark, from Washington’s Blackfell village, signed up, packed his bags and found himself at HMS Raleigh hundreds of miles from home in Plymouth.

“Back then, bearing in mind this was 1996, I felt like I was stripped of everything that I was. I was broken down so that they could build me back up again.

“I was a ginger lad from the North East of England who couldn’t even grow a beard. It’s safe to say, from very early on, I did not enjoy being there.

But over the course of the next eight-and-a-half years, Mark did get a chance to fulfil his dream and see the world, finding himself on deployment in South Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. He was also part of the ceremonial handover crew when Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997.

But Mark, whose main role was as an under-water warfare specialist, was hit by a devastating incident which prompted him to make the decision to leave.

The accidental death of his 17-year-old Bosun’s Mate who drowned while their ship was berthed in Plymouth took its toll.

“Clearing out his locker was so hard,” recalls Mark. “It took its toll and I started drinking heavily, at one point consuming as much as one bottle of brandy a day.”

Mark says that, at that time, mental health was not on the agenda and it certainly was not discussed within the Navy.

He added: “I knew I needed to get out. I was getting into trouble and knew I was struggling to keep things together.”

In 2004, Mark left the Armed Forces and found himself unable to cope.

“I ended up drinking for one week non-stop,” said Mark. “Then, one morning, I woke up by the side of a bridge. I remember going to a phone box and ringing my mum and just asking if I could come home.”

Aged 26, with no job, Mark returned to the North East.

He said: “Going into any kind of higher education never once crossed my mind, as far as I was concerned it was never an option. My mentality was that I was only a worker, I did not have options.”

Mark found himself moving from one job to another. Bathroom fitter, handyman, lorry driver, pizza delivery driver. One followed another.

He said: “For 10 years I could not settle. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, I didn’t think I had a choice but to just keep going.”

Then Mark saw an advert for a counselling course. Never thinking he would qualify for a place, he called up and found that he could do a foundation course before applying to the University of Sunderland for a one year top-up degree programme.

He said: “Until I came to Sunderland, I was oblivious to the role universities could play in helping people like me. People who have worked all their lives but suddenly find themselves in a foreign environment.

“No one told me there were options, there were possibilities.”

As he progresses in his final year at the University, Mark has taken matters into his own hands. He has set up Lighthouse Therapy Group, a counselling service based in Sunderland where he can offer help to others.

“By offering easier access to their courses, the University of Sunderland is playing a life-saving role. They are giving hope to a whole sector of our society who had maybe given up hope,” said Mark.

“Let’s not forget, these are men and women with a huge work ethic, with something massive to contribute to our communities. For too long we have ignored them, which is incredibly short-sighted of us.

“The chance to complete a degree is something I never thought I’d be able to do. But in the summer I will graduate and a whole new chapter will start.”

Mr Slater also met teaching graduate Jonathan Wharton during the visit.

Read Jonathan’s story below:


University of Sunderland graduate Jonathan Wharton has been announced as an award winner for the prestigious 2018 Pearson Teaching Awards.

Jonathan, a Drama Lecturer now at Sunderland College, won a Silver Teaching Award for Further Education Lecturer of the Year.

Selected from thousands of nominations, Jonathan was one of 65 winners across the UK.

Jonathan said: “Thank you so much to everyone who has helped me achieve this award, it’s been a huge group effort.”

Sheree Rymer, Curriculum Manager for Creative Arts at Sunderland College, who nominated Jonathan for the award said:

“From the moment the nomination email came through, I knew I had to nominate Jonathan.

“He constantly goes the extra mile at every opportunity for students, and the wider community.”