A sharp-suited crusader for social justice

13th May 2011 at 01:00
With his charity, the Sutton Trust, holding the strings to a #163;125m Government fund to help disadvantaged pupils, philanthropist Peter Lampl is poised to be a major player in policy-making

An interview can rarely have been better timed.

The morning The TES met Sir Peter Lampl, the fruits of more than a decade of the philanthropist's work and money were, by complete coincidence, saturating the media.

Nick Clegg's ill-fated launch of the Government's social-mobility strategy was plastered across four national newspaper front pages.

Radio phone-ins crackled with indignation about unfair access to internships while the internet buzzed with rumours about how many leading journalists from the country's only "left-wing" broadsheet sent their children to public school.

And there sitting before me was the expensively suited, wealthily tanned, private-equity multi-millionaire who can take much of the credit for this focus on the UK's increasingly rigid social hierarchy.

"The thing has exploded," he says, smiling. "I have just looked at the press cuttings this morning and there are about 100 pages (on social mobility). It has gone berserk. This touches a raw nerve, doesn't it?"

It is a nerve Sir Peter has prodded regularly since he first set up the Sutton Trust in 1997 to promote social mobility through education.

He made his private-equity millions in America - a mid-Atlantic accent lingers - through leveraged buy-outs. And the Sutton Trust works on the same basis, using relatively small sums of money in the hope of triggering much greater outcomes.

It has already persuaded ministers to bankroll schemes such as university summer schools and stateindependent school partnerships, after funding pilots to prove they worked.

Now the charity has won the chance to scale up the process through its stewardship of the Government's new #163;125 million Education Endowment Fund, aimed at helping disadvantaged pupils in underperforming schools.

For Sir Peter it represents "the culmination of the Sutton Trust's work" and could, he believes, influence the way billions of pounds more in public money are spent.

"It's fantastic news," he says. "We are thrilled." The fund, inspired by President Obama's Race to the Top programme, will hand out grants to "innovative and bold" proposals from schools, teachers, local authorities and charities.

"It will be a gigantic do-tank," Sir Peter enthuses. "If we can come up with some things that really work, I think we have got the credibility, the connections, the straight evaluation we do - which is very thorough - to be able to go to the Government to say, 'Look, this really works. How about you guys?'"

In some ways he is an unlikely hero for social justice. There is nothing hairshirt about the 63-year-old ex-financier who sent his three children to fee-paying schools and uses the right-wing Institute of Directors' lavish Pall Mall HQ as a meeting place.

But Sir Peter was brought up on a council estate in Wakefield until the age of eight, and attended what he says was a "crummy" state primary.

And it was not privilege, but ambitious immigrant parents - his father was a refugee who escaped Vienna in 1938, aged 17 - combined with a grammar school and Oxford education that helped him acquire confidence, success and wealth.

Now he believes the ladder he climbed has been kicked away.

"The link between the school you go to and parental income has grown much stronger than it used to be," he says.

"You would get all sorts of kids from poor backgrounds going to the best schools when I was growing up. Today you don't."

His return from the US allowed him to see clearly how privilege had taken hold since his time at Oxford.

"When I was there, in the Sixties, it was like things were really changing," he says. "Britain was opening up. But it seemed to me, having been gone for 20 years, that we'd actually gone backwards in terms of social mobility at the top."

By then he had money. He has since put lots of it where his mouth is, spending #163;35 million of his personal fortune on the Sutton Trust.

Among its most effective uses must be the series of academic studies commissioned by the charity.

They have, in turn, laid bare in brutal, shocking clarity the ossification of Britain's social structure; the privately educated's hugely disproportionate presence in every sphere of the elite; and the middle classes' colonisation of the highest-performing state schools.

You only have to look at the references to Sutton Trust research littering the Government's new social-mobility strategy to see the role the charity has played in quantifying and highlighting the problem.

Sir Peter views the document as a sign of the Coalition's good intentions. "They have probably moved social mobility higher up the agenda than it was under Labour," he says. "They say it's their number one social priority."

But he is less impressed with ministers' deeds - he is "very upset" about the education maintenance allowance being axed and outraged by the rise in university tuition fees.

He says the pupil premium will not make "much difference" at its current level and warns that an "incredibly good admissions code" will be needed to ensure free schools and academies take their fair share of disadvantaged pupils.

But it is not all gloom. Sir Peter is "hopeful" of getting further with this Government on one of his most cherished ambitions, the introduction of "needs blind" admission schemes to 100 academically selective independent day schools like Manchester Grammar and Dulwich College.

His trust proved the idea could work when it funded a seven-year pilot at Belvedere School, Liverpool. The independent girls' school opened up all its places on merit alone, with parents paying fees on a sliding scale according to income.

Belvedere recorded its best-ever GCSE results as its admissions changed to reflect Liverpool as a whole, with 30 per cent of pupils attending for free.

The hybrid system was cheaper per pupil than funding a state school, Sir Peter says. But it was still too expensive for the Sutton Trust to continue funding forever.

Today Belvedere is a state-funded academy, a fact he views "as an admission of failure" - his failure to persuade the then Labour government to take up the idea.

"The money wasn't the issue (for ministers), it was the principle - selection. Even though I said, 'Look, we are not increasing selection, these schools are already selective, we are democratising selection.'"

One former Labour education secretary, Estelle Morris, has reportedly said that, "given a free hand", Sir Peter would re-create grammar schools. And the philanthropist does describe passing the 11-plus as his "way out". But that doesn't mean he wants to see it return.

"I don't think there's any doubt (the grammar system) was better for bright kids from ordinary backgrounds because it gave them the opportunity to get to very academic schools and do very well," he says.

"But overall, because the 75-80 per cent who didn't go got a lousy deal, I think it was right to abolish it.

"But the comprehensives have not done a good job in getting the brightest kids from ordinary backgrounds to the top. They just haven't."

He places a bar chart on the table that starkly illustrates his point. It sums up Sutton Trust research on the disproportional representation of the privately educated among the top of the country's professions.

Just 7 per cent of pupils go to private schools. But the lowest bar on the chart shows that around 27 per cent of university vice-chancellors are independently educated. The proportion then rises steadily through MPs, academics, doctors, journalists, bankers, Cabinet ministers (a category strangely missing from the version of the graph printed in the Government's strategy) and judges. Government advisers, odds-on to be future Cabinet ministers, are at the very top, with three-quarters privately educated.

"That is what really makes my blood boil," Sir Peter says. "So much of this stuff is rigged. You don't have to be rich to be bright. There are a lot of bright kids from poor and middle income who just aren't - and they don't realise it - they just are not going into the top echelons."

So is there any prospect for change under this Government? He sighs. "People are very resistant to opening up the top end. Everyone is very happy about us trying to help free school meal kids from poor-performing schools.

"But try and do something about this and they don't want to know, because it is their kids," he says, pointing at the bar chart.

"The people who are in a position to do something about this - I don't care whether it is Labour or Conservative - they intuitively don't want to know."

It is a depressing, if realistic, outlook. But it has done nothing to dampen Sir Peter's enthusiasm for a mission that he admits has become an obsession.

"I have spent 14 years of my life doing this, which is a lot of time, not just money. This is what gets me up in the morning. I am passionate about this stuff."

So does he ever miss his business career? "Not at all. I am so glad I'm doing this. It is so much more satisfying. The first day we did the open access at Belvedere I was giving an opportunity to 50 girls.

"I had tears running down my face it was so emotional. But I don't want to personalise any of this. I don't want kids to feel beholden to me for what is their right."

Experience has taught Sir Peter the leverage that some personalisation, through media interviews, can bring the Sutton Trust. "It is part of influencing this agenda," he says. "I need to be in the papers and in the media."

His public profile helped him in a very unexpected way two years ago when he changed the medication he was taking for depression and went missing for two days. Sir Peter was eventually discovered in a confused state at London's Victoria station by a commuter who recognised him from a newspaper article.

Unsurprisingly it isn't an episode he wants to discuss. "I went through a bad patch but I am 110 per cent," he says. "I have been for a while now. I am totally over all that."

He certainly sounds it. And, as if to prove the point, he produces a photocopied sheet of A4 paper with a flourish, saying, "I am more interested in this."

On it is a quote from Sweden's education act about a "fundamental principle" of the country's schools system. "All children and young people must have access to equivalent education, regardless of gender, place of residence and social and financial background," it reads.

"Michael Gove is a huge fan of Sweden and its free schools but I would like him to pick that one up," Sir Peter says, jabbing at the paper.

"I think governments are focused more on how we have got to improve our schools system and less on making it fair.

"I am into excellence, too. But I think we need to focus more on fairness and opportunity. We have got such a long way to go to make it fair."


Born: 1947

Education: 1959-1966: Reigate and Cheltenham Grammars

1966-1970: BA and MA, Corpus Christi, Oxford


1970-1971: Marketing executive, Beecham Group

1971-1973: MBA, London Business School

1973-1977: Strategy development, Boston Consulting Group, Boston, Paris and Munich

1977-1983: Senior management, International Paper, New York

1983-1997: Founder and chairman, private equity firm the Sutton Company in New York, London and Munich

1997-present: Founder and chairman of educational charity the Sutton Trust

2000: Awarded OBE

2003: Awarded knighthood

2011-present: Chairman, Education Endowment Trust.

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