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Peter Lampl’s impact on UK education policy: Review of his new autobiography ‘Ticket to Ride’

  • 31 August 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

With characteristic generosity, Sir Peter Lampl recently sent me a copy of his new autobiography, Ticket to Ride (published by HarperCollins), which I review here.

We have all had an education. So there is a strong tendency for our own personal experiences to shape our views. It doesn’t matter how long you have worked in education policy, your personal experiences always matter. In my case, going to boarding school aged eight has left me with a gnawing sense that no child should be sent away so young.

We all let our past histories shape our present views. But Peter Lampl, the founder of the Sutton Trust, does it more than most. While some people interested in policy don’t like being told their outlook reflects their own personal journeys, Peter has no such fear. He happily brings his personal experiences – his formative years in the UK and his working life in the US – to bear in his policy thinking.

However, the first two-thirds of Peter’s book are not really about those areas for which he is well known among wonks, such as setting up the Sutton Trust and campaigning for more social mobility. The early sections are more about management consultancy, the timber and paper industry and wind-surfing – not to mention flogging tickets to an early Beatles concert at a huge mark up (explaining the Ticket to Ride title).

It may be the only book on education policy that has chapter headings which include ‘Making some money’ and ‘Making some more money’.

This all makes for a rollicking read (especially as it seems to have been partly ghostwritten by Giles Smith, who I assume is the entertaining journalist of that name, and the author of one of the best books about pop music, Lost in Music – read it and you will never look at Nik Kershaw in the same way again).

The one clear reference to education policy in the early part of Lampl’s book is an anecdote about how he outperformed his projected A-Level results, scoring ABB rather than his predicted CCC. This allowed him to stay at school for the old seventh-term Oxbridge entry route, which meant some extra work (think Alan Bennett’s History Boys) before taking a special entrance exam.

This experience leads Lampl to conclude ‘in an ideal world – or even just a slightly smarter one – nobody would apply to university until they had taken their A levels and received their results.’ This seems to me a slightly odd lesson to draw, given the seventh-term entry system meant locking your sights firmly on a specific institution before you knew how you would do in their all-important entry exam. Isn’t that the opposite of a post-qualification application?

Either way, the route worked out for Peter, who ended up at Corpus Christi College, thanks particularly to one especially dedicated Chemistry teacher. His time at Oxford – which included getting arrested, doing a cleaning job at Cowley’s filthy car works and living next to a future US President – influenced his later outlook.

He notes, for example, that as a student he was ‘more likely to meet someone from a state school than a private one.’ He claims, ‘we were living through a boom time for educational egalitarianism and social fluidity.’ Now, he fervently wants us to return there.

Lampl made pots of money through leveraged buy-outs, meaning he borrowed money to purchase companies which he then made more successful before selling them on at a huge profit. When, after many years of such activity, it all came to seem a little boring, he looked for things to do with all his dosh.

At first, after the horrific Dunblane massacre, he (anonymously and heroically) spent money campaigning for gun control in the UK, an experience which he says resembled a buy-out in that it he ‘put some money in to something and it produced something far greater.’ This became the model for the Sutton Trust, named after the company that had conducted those buy-outs, through which Peter has since channelled his huge generosity.

It all began after Lampl revisited his old school, Reigate Grammar, and realised he and many of his contemporaries would no longer be able to afford the education on offer, as the school had responded to comprehensivisation by becoming fully private in 1976. A visit to his old Oxford college confirmed his emerging thinking and led to the establishment of summer schools to provide an immersive experience for disadvantaged pupils with high potential, some of whom then went on to become Oxford students themselves.

At this point in the story, it becomes abundantly clear that Peter’s vision of social mobility is more a ‘fair access’ one than a ‘widening participation’ one; in other words, it is more about getting a greater number of poor kids to the oldest and most famous institutions on either side of the Atlantic than extending higher education provision overall.

Just a few days ago, Peter told The Daily Telegraph, ‘I think there are too many kids going to university.’ In his book, his overarching outlook shines through in the elitist language used, such as ‘ultra-smart students’, ‘top-flight higher education’ and ‘the best universities’ (as well as in the half-hearted paragraph about post-1992 institutions on page 223).

It is not for me to question the use of Sir Peter’s own money, which he has undoubtedly put to better use than most extremely rich people. But some readers may nonetheless feel such a big focus on who gets to the so-called ‘top’ institutions masks an even more important conversation about who gets to go to higher education at all. Six decades ago, the Robbins report said:

We therefore return to our contention that, in the long run, what is needed is not only greater equality of opportunity to enter Oxford and Cambridge but also rather more equality of attraction between them and at least some other institutions. We should make the most of first class ability wherever it exists. But, at the undergraduate stage at least, it should not be concentrated in too small a number of centres.

My decade and more in higher education policy has led me to think that superimposing the Ivy League funding model, in which independent institutions with limited numbers of places take from the rich to give to the poor, on UK universities may be inferior to the funding model three of the four parts of the UK already have.

In the current English higher education system, for example, everyone has the right to large taxpayer-backed student loans and means-tested maintenance support – and the amount you repay for your higher education afterwards depends on how well you go on to do afterwards rather than how poor your parents were. No one needs to be wholly dependent on the largesse of rich businessfolk or the wealth of their chosen institution for their university place. Moreover, the number of places is not capped and institutions have to answer to a regulator for their access and participation work.

The are strong parallels between what Lampl thinks about higher education and what he thinks about schooling, as shown in the section of the book on opening up Britain’s independent schools to a wider clientele. The criticisms of the chasm between state and private education in the UK, which Peter characterises as ‘apartheid’, may be correct but his solution of broadening the background of pupils at the posher schools via means-tested fee systems would swap one set of pupils for another. That may be worthwhile, but it cannot on its own deliver a step increase in the total number of people getting a good or outstanding schooling. After all, the objective of ending apartheid was not to give a step up to a few disadvantaged South Africans; it was to change South African society.

The main example of Lampl’s model of ensuring entry to prestigious private schools ‘on merit alone, entirely independent of the ability to pay’ was the Sutton’s Trust’s work at Belvedere Girls’ School in Liverpool. Peter’s generous sponsorship ensured entry was on merit while fees were means-tested.

In many respects, it was a success, as the individual stories in the book amply show. Yet it was never likely to be picked up by politicians for a national rollout using public money: that would have meant extending academic selection in state-financed schooling, which no recent government – except perhaps Theresa May’s – has been fully committed to. 

The Belvedere model is also, arguably, expensive relative to other social mobility interventions, as work conducted for the Sutton Trust by the Boston Consulting Group (who Lampl once worked for) suggests. And, perhaps regrettably, the experiment didn’t last, as the private sponsorship ran out and wasn’t replaced by alternative money. Belvedere is now a state-funded all-ability academy.

The Belvedere story makes Peter’s journey of educational philanthropy feel somewhat circular: he starts with regret that Reigate Grammar School had lost state support and ends with Belvedere joining the state sector. The whole tale serves as a powerful reminder that, when thirteen times as many kids attend state schools as private schools, politicians feel they must focus their available time and money on improving state-funded schools more than on playing around with exactly who gets the limited number of places in selective independent schools.

there is no such thing as a wholly new question in education policy and there can be little doubt that the issues Peter has pushed so hard, such as means-tested fees for schools and universities, will continue to be hotly debated

Yet there is no such thing as a wholly new question in education policy and there can be little doubt that the issues Peter has pushed so hard, such as means-tested fees for schools and universities, will continue to be hotly debated. Sir Anthony Seldon, for example, is among those who have argued that means-tested fees should be applied to state schools as well as private schools and Alex Usher’s work for HEPI has shown how means-tested fees could work in UK higher education.

Moreover, if we continue building up a rich body of research on the impact of Peter Lampl’s initiatives on individuals and if this shows they have been successful at changing life chances, then his work may come to echo more loudly in the corridors of power as the years go by. Whether or not this happens, his work establishing the Education Endowment Foundation, which only gets relatively brief coverage in the book, will be more important than ever as we seek to recover the ground lost as COVID raged.

While the evidence, and perhaps – returning to my early theme – our different personal journeys, have led me to some rather different conclusions to Peter on how you can have the biggest positive impact in education policy, I still wholeheartedly celebrate his work. No one else has had as big an impact on debates about education and social mobility in today’s UK, few people have spent so much helping individuals they do not know to meet their personal potential and Peter is clearly committed to shaking up society, which he complains has set ‘like concrete’, in a positive way.

The book’s sub-title is My Adventures in Big Money and Giving it Away. If other rich businesspeople had put as much of their personal wealth towards educational research and campaigning on social mobility as Peter has done, the world would be a very much better place. So thank you Peter.

Now, someone please put him in the Lords.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Wonderful review.

    Sir Peter would be great in the House of Lords.

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