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Pushing apart the pillars of privilege;Interview;Peter Lampl;People

Peter Lampl wants an education system where merit, not money, determines success. Biddy Passmore talks to him as his first open-access school is born

Peter Lampl doesn't look like an educational philanthropist. He is much too young, for one thing. Coy as a Spice Girl about his age, he reluctantly agrees to "late 40s" his sporty frame, suntan and perfect teeth make him look 10 years younger.

An entrepreneur who made a fortune early through investment, mainly in the United States, he has the zeal of someone who decides, in the prime of life, to transfer his energy from making money to making Britain a fairer place.

He wants to enable bright children from non-privileged backgrounds to go to the best schools, the best universities and thus get the best jobs.

This week, he announced the first "open-access" independent day school at the Belvedere school for girls in Liverpool (see page 6). He envisages a network of perhaps 100 such schools, where admission is purely on merit and financial help is given according to need. And he dreams of a Labour government that might alter its policy on selection to fund it.

This is just the latest scheme in what is already a long list since Mr Lampl founded the Sutton Trust in 1997. Others include summer schools to encourage bright state-school pupils to apply to Oxbridge, an in-service week at Oxford for state-sector teachers, and partnerships between state and independent schools.

He also wants to develop a university admission test to measure potential, along the lines of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests used in the United States. Education ministers are non-committal, but he'll fund the research anyway.

He plans to fund a weekly Saturday school for sixth-formers from Southwark, south London, where they would be paid pound;3 an hour to attend classes at the London School of Economics. And, fired by the enthusiasm of his American wife Karen, the trust is financing early-learning projects.

In all, the Sutton Trust will be spending pound;1.2 million on education in 1999. What makes a man decide to spend his time and money in this way rather than, say, going into tax exile to pursue his beloved body-surfing? The experience that fired him, he says, was returning to this country in the late 1980s after spending most of his adult life abroad and finding that the state grammar school he had attended in Reigate, Surrey, was now private and charging pound;6,000 a year. His father, a Czech emigre who became a successful businessman, could have afforded the fees: his poorer friends could not.

He found that his friends now thought only of private education for their children, although often state-educated themselves. Why? A glance at a league table told him that: the top 70 schools were all private - many of them former grammar and direct-grant schools driven out of the state sector by the pressure to go comprehensive.

Entry statistics to Oxford University, where Peter Lampl had read chemistry, told a similar tale: the proportion of entrants from state schools had fallen from 64 to 42 per cent. He concluded that while he had been abroad educational opportunity for bright children from poorer backgrounds had been sharply reduced.

Fresh from countries where the state sector is strongest (France and Germany) and where top universities hunt for the bright but under-privileged (the US), he was outraged that friends assumed they could buy entry to the best universities. "When I've spent pound;150,000 on a good school, the least it can do is get my son into Cambridge," said one.

But he was then a bachelor (he married five years ago) and it is well known that agonising about education starts when you have children. Why did he get so involved? "I'd been making money for 15 years and I'd always wanted to put something in," he says. The appetite to do good also seems to have grown stronger with his first experience of it: the first summer school at Oxford, in 1997. Modelled on similar schools at American Ivy League universities it was, he says, such a positive experience that he felt he had to do more.

Mr Lampl says he is "ideologically on the fence" on the question of selection in education.

"In an ideal world I don't know if I would select, but we don't live in an ideal world: the children in state schools have to compete with the children from the private schools." He adds, however, that there is much evidence that bright children do better in selective schools - and that most other countries do select in some way.

Decisions on the education of his own children lie a little way ahead. He has a son of one and a daughter of three, who now attends a private nursery school. Perhaps, if the idea takes off, she might end up at an open-access independent day school. But, if the means test means anything, her father would most certainly pay the full fees.

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