Still Blair's favourite millionaire?

Sir Peter Lampl is the entrepreneur who has poured money into Labour-friendly educational projects. But his attack on city academies has revealed a more combative streak. Steve McCormack meets him
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The newspapers arrived on Ministerial desks with a particularly brutal thud on the last day of August. One of Labour's most cherished big ideas, the city academies programme, was being rubbished publicly by one of the most influential movers and shakers in the education jungle.

Sir Peter Lampl, the entrepreneur turned philanthropist, who has poured millions into Labour-friendly projects that widen educational access among the less well off, was now exposing what he saw as flaws in the Blairite approach to an acute problem - failing secondary schools.

With the faint American accent acquired in the years he made millions across the Atlantic, and the rigorous application of business logic, Lampl ridiculed the vast expenditure - at least £25m on each academy - as making no economic sense. There were far more effective ways to spend the money, he argued, if Labour really believed in their mantra of choice.

Ministers must know they can ill afford to have such an articulate and increasingly powerful figure opposing a key policy. So who is this smart, perma-tanned, wealthy white knight? And why is he diverting the fruits of his labours towards the poorer boys and girls of Britain, in the form of educational opportunities opened up by money from the Sutton Trust, the educational charity he chairs, and bankrolls?

People who know him are impressed by his commitment. "He's a visionary," says broadcaster and friend, Andrew Neil. "He's done great things to help kids from modest backgrounds get on in education, without seeking to become a household name."

And he is actually having an effect on the way that educational establishments do business. "He's made Oxford University recast its thinking," says Jane Minto, head of admissions at Lampl's alma mater.

This week, his influence was evident in the Schwartz report on university admissions. Lampl sat on the Schwartz committee and pushed the idea of introducing American-style SAT tests for university entry. The committee agreed with him.

As the work of the Sutton Trust has grown, Lampl's influence has increased. He has been a frequent visitor at the Department for Education and Skills, the Treasury and Number 10. The Queen's sword landed on his shoulder last year. Many of his projects chime with New Labour's educational libretto. But now his differences with the Government are out in the open. He describes himself as a "critical friend of the Government". "They've not done enough for social justice though they have made improvements to education," he explains to me at his modest London office. The social justice test governs all Lampl's funding decisions. "I ask myself, does this project create justice and social mobility?"

This passion has its roots in his own experience, a journey propelled by merit, not money. After grammar schools in Surrey and Cheltenham, the young Lampl went to Corpus Christi at Oxford, emerging in 1970 with a Masters in physical chemistry. An MBA from London Business School launched his career in commerce. For the next 24 years, he moved between Europe and the USA, making progress and money. The Sutton Company, the private equity firm he set up himself in 1983, nearly went under after a shaky start, but by the mid 1990s had become a roaring success.

"I was very fortunate, and was lucky enough to make some money," he concedes.

It was the American experience that began to stir his altruistic instincts. "If you're lucky enough to make money there, you're sort of expected to try to do something helpful, which is, sadly, not so true here."

His convictions weren't put into practice, though, until his return to the UK in 1996. It was at the time of the Dunblane massacre, when a gunman walked into a Scottish primary school and murdered 16 children and their teacher.

"Having lived in America, I felt strongly that having handguns around the place was not a good idea, so I contacted the gun control campaigners and offered to provide some funding. The next thing I knew, the father of a girl shot dead at Dunblane was in my living-room. The campaign led to a ban on handguns."

That seemed to give him a taste for philanthropy, and he moved on to what he regarded as the educational apartheid that had developed in Britain in the two decades.

"I went back to visit my old school, in Reigate, where I'd gone in the 1960s at no cost to my parents. It was a direct grant school funded by the state. My best friend was a farm labourer's son.

"Now, though, after comprehensives came in, it had gone independent. A lot of the kids who'd gone there with me couldn't go there any more." He also noticed a similar development at his old university. In the 1960s, two thirds of Oxford students came from state schools, he says. "In the 1990s, the proportion had dropped to less than a half. I was appalled."

For him, this symbolised a widening social division. "In this country we've got a more affluent group who educate their kids privately from nursery school upwards. They never mix with kids of other backgrounds. That's what I mean by apartheid."

As he warms to his theme, his animated features betray a mixture of disapproval and distaste for what we might term the complacent rich. "For the top layer of our society, independent schools are just a bolt hole for their kids. They really don't give a damn about the state sector."

This, then, was the moral ground on which he laid the foundations of the Sutton Trust, which, every year, channels about £3m of his money into projects supporting bright children from average or poor backgrounds.

His first venture, in 1997, took groups of state school pupils, from families with no history of university education, to a two-week summer school at Oxford University. The aim was to raise their aspirations and give them the confidence to apply.

It was a success, and the idea was eventually taken up by David Blunkett as education secretary. Now, Lampl's Sutton Trust and the Government together run summer schools at 60 universities for 6,000 inner city state school teenagers every year.

Oxford's Jane Minto, admits her employers were a bit sniffy when Lampl approached them seven years ago. "We were a bit nervous about accepting other people's money, she says. "We didn't know where it might have come from."

But she soon became an unqualified convert to the man and his beliefs. "He's had a very important effect on the notion of widening opportunities and broadening access to institutions like Oxford."

It's a view echoed by Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University. He says: "He's a man who cares passionately that people today should have the same opportunities he himself had."

Another of the Sutton Trust's successes is the independent Belvedere School for Girls in Liverpool. The Trust ensures that the intake is based purely on academic merit, with roughly two-thirds of girls coming from families with average or below average earnings.

But he doesn't just sign the cheques. When the first "open access" intake was chosen at Belvedere, he took part in the selection process. He recalls: "Out of a class of 72, there were 52 girls who wouldn't have been able to go there unless we had this scheme."

Belvedere's head, Gill Richards, says the scheme, now entering its fifth year, has made a dramatic difference. "The pool of intellectual talent has risen," she says. "We have more girls who are very able."

This has to be the best testament to what he has done, according to Andrew Neil, who endorses Lampl's argument that the public money it would take to introduce open access to the top 100 or so independent day schools on the Belvedere model - an estimated £140m - would provide unparalleled value for money from a government preaching their conversion to choice.

Lampl prefers to target funds on projects that could, realistically, be scaled up nationally. Currently he's developing plans to open early years centres in supermarkets in deprived areas - an approach he hopes will kick start the social mobility he says has declined in Britain since the 1950s.

It's clear that he's set to devote the rest of his working life to his trust. Entering politics does not tempt him and he remains relaxed about the outcome of the next election. That indifference to party politics is an asset, according to Estelle Morris, the former education secretary. Given his new-found capacity for publicly criticising the Government, Blair and Co had better look out.