As a school governor, Sir John Ritblat, of property developer British Land, believes the built environment is key to learning
Tell us about your work with schools
I've always been interested in education partly because it's the font of all success but also I find there's so much pleasure and fulfilment to be had from bringing on young people. As a governor of several schools and colleges I've always found the education system a rewarding and refreshing experience, mostly because of the pupils who come through it.
Is the Government's Building Schools for the Future programme a worthwhile investment?
It's worth every penny. The fact we want to provide excellence is no excuse to not providing it and in the past governments have spent a lot on education but not always wisely. There's no future in building on a substandard basis so it's important that schools have the best facilities and fabric to help young people succeed.
What physical environment would you like to see in a 21st-century school?
Environment is crucial: we can raise aspirations and horizons by improving the conditions they spring from. It's the "broken-window syndrome": if people see one window damaged they don't mind if another gets broken too. We have to give children the space and time to learn. Many schools are not fit for purpose because they don't allow pupils to utilise their energies in the right way. The Government has a major role in improving facilities and giving our young people the broadest education possible and, though it costs a lot of money, wherever we have to cut costs it should not be in education. However, we can save a huge amount of money in the future by making sure we don't just build schools but maintain and repair them correctly.
Does private sponsorship enhance the quality of education provision?
There are exceptionally generous people in the private sector who are keen to see young people flourish. It's not a case of influencing the nature of individual schools but trusting the heads and governors to run them well. Investors can help provide the best facilities but they need to be aware that if standards fall then there may be an onus on them to take steps to ensure pupils' education doesn't suffer.
You have a strong association with sport. How important is it that UK children participate in sport to a high level?
We can't all be winners but we can all be participants. I take great pleasure in seeing children come through the ranks but without a large amount of people taking part we won't see many champions. We shouldn't be a nation of spectators but a nation that is willing to participate at any level.
You're a keen supporter of the UK Chess Challenge. How did that come about?
It came about through the sponsorship of British Land and involves more than 70,000 children in the UK. Chess is an exceptional game and although I don't have a lot of time to play myself, it's wonderful to see so many young people taking part and enjoying the game.
What do you think of today's pupils?
They're every bit as good as, if not better than, any of us because they have so many skills we didn't even learn at school, but they'll only maintain that provided the conditions they flourish in are also good. I'm very worried about the employment prospects for our under-25s and feel as a country we've lost all pride in encouraging trades and crafts among young people. When given the opportunities and a level playing field with other countries who value these skills, they are wonderful.
How do you feel about encouraging young people to learn a trade rather than pursue academic study?
Academic study is the right way forward for a proportion of our young people but it is not for everyone. Certainly in the past, apprenticeships for trades and articles of employment were an essential way to strengthen our skills base across both manufacturing and service industries. I believe that we should still be encouraging those who do not want to follow an academic path to equip themselves with a trade that can offer them employment and opportunities to fulfil their potential.
Do you think you'd make a good teacher?
I'm sure of it. I like being with young people and imparting knowledge to them. There's nothing more satisfying than holding their interest and attention and I can fully understand why the teachers who do it well enjoy their job so much.
If you were Schools Secretary for the day, what would you do?
Ensure pupils receive a level of continuity. Governments and budgets change too often and I'd make sure that a five or 10-year plan was stuck to. Children are the principle element in creating our future as a country and the biggest single investment we can make is in them.
Honorary president, British Land
Chairman, Colliers CRE, property consultants
Chairman of the board of governors and honorary fellow, London Business School
Deputy chairman, governor and honorary fellow, Royal Academy of Music
Chairman of the trustees, The Wallace Collection
Honorary president, Snowsport GB (formerly the British Ski amp; Snowboard Federation)
Honorary president, London Festival of Architecture 2010.
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