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Sir Peter Lampl


Master, Distinguished Governors, Graduates and Guests.

Sir Peter Lampl was brought up in Wakefield in Yorkshire on a council estate, the son of a Czech refugee who came to Britain in 1938, and qualified as an engineer by studying part-time at night school. He went to Reigate Grammar School, at that time a direct grant school, and then, when his parents moved to Surrey, to grammar schools in Cheltenham. He took sciences at A Level, chafing a little then, as he still does today, at the requirement for young people in this country to drop many of the subjects in which they retain an interest at the age of 16, and then won a place at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. This was an agreeable one in the eye for the physics teacher who had told him at Reigate ‘The only way you’ll ever go to Oxford, my boy, is on the bus’. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was not with a degree in physics that he came away from Oxford in 1970 but a BSc in physical chemistry. He joined Beechams as a marketing trainee and then, following a course at the London Business School, joined the Boston Consulting Group, a management consultancy firm in Boston, Massachusetts. Subsequently, he occupied a number of senior management positions in International Paper, the world’s largest paper and forest products company, travelling throughout Europe and the US, before founding, in 1983, the Sutton Company, a private equity firm, which, after a rocky beginning, enabled him to accrue for himself a considerable personal fortune. It would be 20 years before he returned to these shores, and his experiences in the USA would mark his social and political attitudes indelibly.

By the time he returned to Britain, in 1994, he was, he has said, ‘getting a bit stale making money’ and beginning to feel that he would like to find a way to put something back and to have a wider and more lasting influence in improving social conditions. That was the year in which a gunman walked into a school in Dunblane and shot dead 16 children and their teacher. Peter Lampl’s experience in the USA had given him strong views about the dangers of uncontrolled gun ownership so, when a campaign was started in the wake of the Dunblane massacre to ban handguns, he was quick to write offering funding and support. The Snowdrop Campaign was eventually successful when, in 1997, handgun ownership was banned in this country.

The success of this campaign gave him an appetite for further philanthropic enterprises. Returning to his old college, Corpus Christi, that traditionally provided a destination for bright schoolchildren from mining communities in South Wales, he had discovered that there were hardly any applicants from that area any more. This cohered strongly with the impression he had had since his return from the USA, of a growing divide between the children of those affluent families who had traditionally been the beneficiaries of the best educational opportunities and the poorer pupils who never got a sniff of them. His own school, Reigate grammar, had become a private school, whose £12,000 year fees would certainly have prevented him going there. Sir Peter saw that the apparent social and educational gains of the 1970s were rapidly being reversed. He had left a country in which economic barriers to educational success were being broken down: he had returned to a country gashed down the middle by a kind of ‘educational apartheid’.

In 1997, he set up the Sutton Trust, to help coordinate his contributions to action and research in closing the divide. The Sutton Trust has two principal areas of activity. Firstly, it funds projects that provide educational opportunities for pupils from non-privileged backgrounds. These projects extend across the age range, from pre-school parenting programmes, right up to support for universities seeking to diversify their intake. Secondly, it sponsors important and far-reaching research. In 2005, for example, it published the results of a study showing that there had been a very sharp fall in cross-generational mobility as between those who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, and those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. This work was confirmed by a study by the LSE which compared social mobility across a number of different countries, and found that Britain and the US were languishing disreputably at the bottom of the table.

One of his Peter Lampl’s first initiatives was to set up a summer school in Oxford to give students from state schools a chance to sample the academic and social life of the university, perhaps thereby dispelling some of its alienating mystique and encouraging them to apply. This was followed by similar schemes in Cambridge, Bristol, Nottingham, St. Andrew’s, Durham and UCL. In 2000, he teamed up with Belvedere School in Liverpool, to fund an open-access initiative. This allows anybody to apply to the school without being constrained by their inability to afford the fees. All successful applicants are means-tested and those who cannot afford the fees have them paid by the scheme. At this point, over 70% of the students attending the school receive funding from the scheme, with a third attending entirely free. This is a good example of Sir Peter’s canny preference for supporting projects which have a good prospect of being scaled up nationally, especially through the involvement of Government. Sir Peter would like to see Government-supported open-access schemes running across the country, pointing out that, far from requiring extra resources, they would actually work out cheaper per student than state education.

His interest in providing educational opportunities for non-privileged students has also given him a strong interest in part-time education. Just a couple of weeks ago, he could be heard in the Times Higher Education Supplement arguing strongly against the idea that a student who does not complete a degree at the first attempt should be regarded as a drop-out, pointing to compelling research by the Rowntree Foundation indicating that nearly all students who do not complete degree courses are intending to resume them at some point in the future. Birkbeck has always seen it as its role to allow such continuous learning over a lifetime, both for those aiming to complete degrees and, increasingly in these volatile times, those seeking to change academic direction.

Much has been said about the need for the élite universities to be more encouraging and responsive to applicants from state schools. Sir Peter has tended to concentrate at the supply end of things, believing that the problem may begin lower down, at the point at which students from state schools are discouraged from applying to these universities. Sir Peter is passionately committed to the principle that students need to be encouraged to aim high. There must be many of my vintage for whom this resonates strongly. When I myself went to Oxford in 1973 from Bognor Regis Comprehensive School, I was one of a cohort of a dozen or so students going to Oxbridge (including the current director of BBC TV). There was certainly no question of that school, which, as the fourth largest school in Europe, was no middle-class enclave, feeling intimidated by the prospect of high educational achievement. If those were the gates to be stormed, then they would the ones to storm them. Research conducted by the Sutton Trust suggests that this aggressive confidence, so prevalent in the state sector during the 1960s and 1970s, has waned disastrously. Surveying 20% of the teachers in state schools who are responsible for advising their pupils on careers and further education options, the Sutton Trust found that an extraordinary 80% of those teachers said that they did not think their pupils would be in the running for the top universities.

Of course, there are those who are queasy about measures that might seem to perpetuate distinctions between different kinds of school, or university, that should not be there in the first place. Sir Peter’s response to this is robustly pragmatic; we should start from where we are rather than putting off starting at all until we are in some altogether more green and pleasant place. Given the unfeasibility of doing away with independent schools, and the wastefulness of simply dispersing the educational capital concentrated in them, Peter Lampl has made it his mission instead to democratise these institutions.

Beyond his work in the educational field, he has also, in his person and practice, shown the way towards a wholly new, much more engaged and strategic form of philanthropy, far removed from the responsive model of classical philanthropy. He has described philanthropists of the kind he is interested in promoting as ‘the venture capitalists of social change’, who identify an opportunity to solve a problem, assemble the necessary resources, make a decisive intervention and move on. He has drawn on his knowledge of the endowment culture of America to support his argument that we develop in this country both a stronger sense of social responsibility among the wealthy and a far more vigorous ‘culture of asking’ in our educational institutions. He would probably see himself as bringing to bear a businessman’s pragmatism, but he has himself been described as a revolutionary and a visionary. He was awarded an OBE in 1999 and a knighthood in the 2003 Honours List for services to Higher Education.

Over the last ten years, Sir Peter has brought opportunities for academic success within the reach of many children who had previously been denied, or brought to think themselves unentitled to them. Through his indefatigable efforts, and through his insistence on telling Government what he thinks they should know rather than what they want to hear, he has helped to change the face of education and educational thinking in this country. If we do not succeed in healing the shocking gulf between our educational Two Nations, it will not be for want of industry, imagination, or tenacity of purpose on Sir Peter’s part. We honour his achievement and are delighted to welcome him today as Fellow of Birkbeck.