Education: Opening Oxbridge up to the poor

A millionaire businessman believes we can borrow the techniques of America's Ivy League universities to end the waste of talent in the UK and give inner city children a chance.
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The Independent Online
Peter Lampl, entrepreneur, buyer of companies, multi-millionaire, is an unlikely sort of radical. He may dress in the immaculate and understated manner of a city high-flier, but his ideas have already ruffled some timid educational feathers. In the space of three years, he has transformed himself from a jet-setting businessman to a crusader for bright inner- city pupils. Through his Sutton Trust, he has established summer schools to help them into Oxbridge, contributed to government schemes to foster links between private and state schools and is busy with plans to fund a private school for which the sole basis of admission would be ability.

Now he is about to go further. He is proposing to ministers that they pilot a new American-style entry test for university that would run alongside A-levels and be one of the main factors in university entrance, giving children from poor backgrounds a better chance of success. He is prepared to pay half the costs of a pilot for the test, which would measure ability rather than achievement.

For much of the first part of his working life he operated in America, and his experience there is the clue to his determination to work for fundamental changes in the structure of British schools and universities. America's leading universities such as Harvard, he points out, run aggressive recruitment campaigns to woo inner-city students. And when they have found them, they are admitted with lower academic scores than their more affluent contemporaries. "Do you know how many admissions officers Harvard has? Fifty. Oxford has just two. At Harvard, they are mostly in their twenties and they are evangelists for the university.

"If you are a bright inner-city kid in America, you have university admissions officers fighting over you. If they think you have potential, they write to you, call you up, actually recruit you. It's a different world from here."

There are also around 1,000 Harvard alumni throughout the United States who talent-spot bright inner-city pupils in their area, interview them and pass on their names and papers to the university. Neither the alumni, the admissions officers nor those who sit on the final admissions committee are academics. Mr Lampl has sat in on the committee that has to choose 1,600 from 17,000 applicants, all of whom are interviewed.

It uses a Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), taken before a student applies to university and more like an IQ test than our A-level exam, to help identify bright pupils from underprivileged backgrounds. The committee will also have details of an applicant's rank in class, rank in school and parents' jobs and educational background. Each admissions officer will make the case for the students in his "patch" after talking to teachers and other students. "There is huge, unashamed positive discrimination," says Mr Lampl. "It's not like Oxbridge where you need three As if you're from Eton and two As and a B if you're from Tower Hamlets. Someone from an inner-city area may get in with a score of, say, 620 whereas someone from a privileged background may be turned down with a score of 800.

"I saw the committee discuss the case of a 17-year-old single mother from a bad area of Los Angeles. She was top of her class and the admissions officer argued that she had a good score for someone from her area."

Once a student is chosen, a university may offer special help. A black student with a comparatively low test score who was offered a place at Massachusetts Institute of Technology was told to get on an aeroplane to MIT the following day. He had to spend the rest of the summer studying at the university so that he would match the standard of his fellow students when they arrived.

The SAT test, Mr Lampl argues, is much less biased in favour of the middle- classes than A-level exams. He has already mentioned the idea to David Blunkett, the education secretary, and intends to pursue it further."We waste an awful lot of talent in this country. I'm interested in doing research into what would be involved in running a SAT test as part of university entrance."

Peter Lampl's determination to end the waste of talent dates back to his return to Britain from the United States in the mid-Eighties. He had been educated at state grammar schools in Reigate and Cheltenham before reading chemistry at Corpus Christi College, Oxford in the Sixties. He made his money as founder and chairman of the Sutton Company, an investment and private equity firm that made investments in the United States and Europe.

"When I got back, my old school was a private school charging pounds 6,000 a year and most of my state-educated friends were sending their children to private schools," Lampl says.

He was shocked: though he came from a middle-class background, one of his friends at school had been a labourer's son. "Today I would have been educated in a private school and would have missed out on all those friends."

He makes frequent trips to America but now lives mainly in central London. He fears that he is likely to educate his two children, both under five, in private schools. "I should like them to be in the state system, but my wife says no."

When he researched the figures for Oxbridge entrance, he found that the proportion of state-school students at Oxford had fallen from 64 per cent in the late Seventies to around half that figure. If you take out the remaining grammar schools, only 20 per cent of Oxbridge entrants are from genuine comprehensives, he says, even though they account for 87 per cent of schools. While Harvard and the famous American universities had marched forward by admitting growing numbers of the intelligent poor, Britain had been going backwards.

"If you go to one of the top 100 independent schools, your chances of getting into Oxbridge are about 100 times better than if you go to a comprehensive. They account for a quarter of Oxford's entire entry." Yet only between 10 and 15 per cent of parents can afford private education, he believes.

"When I was at school, if you were bright, everyone had the choice of a good academic education. We don't have a meritocracy any more."

He began by offering to fund a summer school at Oxford. Sixty-four sixth- formers from inner-city comprehensives turned up. "It opened my eyes. It was a life-transforming experience. By the end of the week they were confident and gregarious and about a quarter are now undergraduates at Oxford." That was two years ago. This year's summer school will have 250 potential applicants. An appeal through The Mirror brought 130 enquiries. There will also be Lampl summer schools at Cambridge, Bristol and Nottingham. He makes no apology for targeting only "Ivy League" universities: the argument that all universities are equal is "ridiculous". Only by going to the best universities, he says, will disadvantaged children defy the class system and end up in the top professions.

More ambitious plans are afoot from the man who has abandoned an active business career to devote most of his time to educational projects. Later this summer he hopes to announce a scheme to provide open access to at least one private school. Entry would be based on academic ability and parents would be means-tested. "The Americans call it needs-blind admissions." He reckons that between 70 and 80 per cent of pupils would be wholly or partially paid for at cost to himself of around pounds 2m a year. There would be a recruitment officer who would seek out underprivileged children to stop the place filling up with the offspring of pushy middle-class parents.

It would, he says, be quite different from the assisted places scheme, abolished by the Government. That parachuted a few poor bright children into private schools where they often felt isolated. It also led to accusations of abuse. "We would take people's assets as well as their income into account and we should check up on things. I am putting my own money into this so that makes you a little more circumspect." He smiles wryly.

His attempt to persuade the Government to offer open access based on merit to all top 100 independent schools failed, but he has not given up hope. The net cost, allowing for savings on educating pupils in the state sector, would be about pounds 100m a year.

What about the argument that he is creaming off bright children from comprehensives? He points out that rich children are being lost to comprehensives all the time by educating them in private schools. Why should that right be denied to poor children?

The latest Government initiative intended to help bright inner-city children - masterclasses usually after school and at weekends - may help a little, but it is not the answer, he suggests. The partnerships between state and private school which he has agreed to fund are also helpful. "But neither helps to solve the structural problem that we have."

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