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Do the presents have a future?

Could the gifts of multi-millionaire benefactors who plough their fortunes into schools be used to greater effect? Martin Whittaker reports

Education appears to be benefiting from a new trend - the rise of the nouveau philanthropist. But are their millions going where they are most needed? Donations from the UK's richest people are higher than ever, according to the recent annual Sunday Times giving survey. The total amount of charitable donations is more than pound;453 million (compared with pound;333m in 2005). Education features among the good causes for eight of the top 10, and 19 of the top 30, most generous donors.

The Charities Aid Foundation says that while it has no details on where the money is going, there has been a rise in big donations to education, spurred on by the Government's controversial academies programme.

"What's quite clear is that education is attracting some major donors,"

said a spokeswoman for the foundation.

But who are the new philanthropists? The top giver in the Sunday Times survey is Robert Edmiston, a Midlands car import entrepreneur. His wealth is estimated at pound;410m and he has recently donated more than a tenth of that to a combination of religious, humanitarian and educational causes.

Mr Edmiston is the founder of the evangelical charity Christian Vision. He has put pound;2m into starting the Grace academy in Solihull and has committed a further pound;2m towards a new business and enterprise academy in Coventry, due to open in 2009.

Also in the top 10 heavyweight donors is the property tycoon Leo Noe, who has recently given away more than pound;27m of his pound;380m wealth, and has pledged start-up funding to help schools to gain specialist status in special educational needs.

Stanley Fink, chief executive of the financial services giant Man Group, who ranks ninth and is worth pound;110m, is an academy sponsor, as is the car dealership owner Sir Peter Vardy, who is 19th in the list. Sir Peter is worth pound;150m and has recently donated a total of pound;3.4m. His Emmanuel Schools Foundation sponsors two academies and a city technology college in the North-east. The foundation has been criticised for advocating the teaching of creationism.

The list also includes Roger De Haan, who is worth pound;850m and has donated pound;15.6m to regeneration, education and the environment. He sponsors the Marlowe academy in Ramsgate, Kent.

According to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, pound;250m has so far been donated to sponsor specialist schools, academies and city technology colleges. It lists 52 sponsors, including large firms, trusts and individual businessmen, who have each put in more than pound;1m.

The Department for Education and Skills says there are now 27 academies open, with a further 48 in various stages of planning. But is it money well spent? A recent guide for donors to education says that while private money should be encouraged and can transform opportunities for children in state education, helping to fund academies may not be the best option.

The report On Your Marks is published by New Philanthropy Capital (NPC), a non-profit-making body which advises donors. It says academies are a risky investment compared with other options and that donors should think long and hard about sponsoring them.

It reminds sponsors that given the controversy surrounding the programme, their support is likely to become very public. Another note of caution concerns the cost. It says pound;25m capital costs, of which pound;2m is paid by the sponsor, is very expensive. The organisation has worked out the cost of an academy at pound;5,389 per pupil per annum, compared with pound;4,837 a year for specialist schools, and pound;4,750 for all secondary schools.

The report contains further interesting comparisons. It says the total Pounds 25m capital investment could be used to train 85 per cent of primary teachers in England to understand better the needs of children with communication difficulties or it could pay for the mentoring of 5,100 pupils with behavioural difficulties for a year.

Jai Mukherjee of NPC says increasing numbers of businesses are looking to put money into education. More and more also want to invest time in schools.

"It's an issue that everybody involved in a company can buy into," he said.

"When you get to schools and education, it hits everybody's button."

There has been a sea change in philanthropy in recent years, he said.

Whereas donors would once have baulked at giving money to traditionally government-funded areas such as health or education, they now regard it as giving something back to society, he said. And while philanthropists should be applauded for committing pound;2m to an academy, there are also many other small charities doing good work in education.

"We are not saying that you shouldn't give to academies," he said. "What we are saying is that an academy is one of several options. What academies generally represent is the higher risk, high-reward option. There are others that are low-risk and may even be more cost effective."

So, if you have a couple of million to donate and don't want to invest it in bricks, glass and a big say in the way a school is run, what are the options?

You could consider investing some of it in Chance UK, a charity which identifies primary pupils with behavioural difficulties who are at risk of going off the rails and offers them one-to-one mentoring.

The charity, recommended by NPC, has been running for 10 years. It began with 20 children in Islington, north London, and is now developing similar schemes across the country. Chance UK is recognised by the Home Office as an exemplar of good practice in mentoring, and has the backing of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

"I'm not going to express an opinion on the academies," said Gracia McGrath, the charity's chief executive. "What I would say is that there are also other ways of supporting schools and children who are not functioning well in school."

Friends United Network is another project which NPC recommends to potential donors. It provides long-term adult mentors to help vulnerable children from isolated, single-parent families. The project must raise more than Pounds 200,000 a year to continue its present activities.

Richard Turner, its operations manager, said that while money spent on academies may improve outcomes for some children, it will make little difference to the most vulnerable.

"Relatively small but targeted philanthropic investment in this group will almost certainly bring better social and economic returns than large-scale investment in restructuring the education system," he said.

Trusty knight's bid to bankroll greater social mobility

Multi-millionaire Sir Peter Lampl founded the Sutton Trust nine years ago to improve educational opportunities for able young people from non-privileged backgrounds. He gives between pound;2 million and pound;3m a year to education and has donated a total of pound;20m.

Why does he do it? After making his fortune in private equity in the United States, he returned to the UK in the mid-1990s and was shocked at the lack of social mobility.

"I felt it had gone backwards," he said. "I went back to my old school, Reigate grammar. All the places were free when I was there, but it was now a private school. Then my college at Oxford discovered I'd made some money and I was invited to lunch with the president. When I was there, a lot of working-class kids went through the college, but there had hardly been any for the past 10 years.

"When I was at Oxford, two-thirds of the student body were from state-funded schools, and it was now less than half. So I set up the trust - it was almost a sense of outrage that a lot of kids were not getting good chances."

He began by funding a summer school at Oxford for state-school pupils. The Sutton Trust has since funded an open-access scheme at Belvedere, a private school in Liverpool, allowing places there for girls based on merit rather than ability to pay.

Belvedere will soon become the first private school to join the state sector as a non-selective academy.

With the Government, the trust has jointly funded independent and state-school partnerships and pays for a range of research projects. It has backed 30 specialist schools and is sponsoring a pound;7m academy in Liverpool with the Girls' Day School Trust.

Sir Peter said: "I think there is more giving to education now than when I started."

But he has some concerns about the academies programme - particularly about the large sums spent on some schools, and the fact that some sponsors have no background in education.

"I have a grave concern about that," he said. "I think qualifications for sponsors should be much more stringent before we start throwing that kind of money at people. I don't want to name names, but some of these people - would you give them pound;25-30m of your money to go build a new building and run a school? The answer is, 'Probably not.'"

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