When Gordon Brown fired the first bullet in the class war, the gun he used was registered to Peter Lampl, the multimillionaire philanthropist and head of the Sutton Trust. Long before Brown decried Laura Spence’s rejection from Magdalen College, Oxford, he had expressed great interest in Lampl’s work on the bias among leading universities against state school pupils. As Lampl, an easy mover in government circles, puts it: “Gordon Brown is in on the loop.”
Ten days after Brown’s outburst, to vast fanfare and public accolades from the Chancellor, the Sutton Trust published its findings on the rough deal accorded to state-educated children. Lampl affected only modest bafflement. “When I first put pen to paper, I had no idea that my report . . . would coincide with such a mass of class-ridden hysteria and publicity over the fortunes of one particular schoolgirl; and a general political dogfight,” he wrote in the Guardian.
He omitted to mention that his conclusions were – perhaps befitting a former paper company supremo – recycled. Back in April, the Times published all his main findings, including how, if students were admitted strictly on A-level grades, the top universities would take about 30 per cent fewer from private schools and about 30 per cent more from less affluent areas. The interest in Lampl’s warning of a “scandalous waste of talent” was modest. It was only when the Chancellor echoed this refrain (“an absolute scandal”), on Laura’s behalf, that the action started. Cue class warfare and, subsequently, huge publicity for Lampl’s reheated statistics.
He says he had always intended to produce a full report, complete with proposals for the introduction of the university talent-scouts and aptitude tests deployed by the Ivy League in America. The timing was simply “happenstance”. Right? No conspiracy at all. Nevertheless, the sequence suggests both a synergy of purpose with Brown – something Lampl acknowledges – and a sharp eye for a headline.
Even so, there is, at least from a distance, a wary quality about the new Labour guru who spends £2m a year on enhancing the prospects of poorer children. First, I am asked to submit questions and a resume of my own educational background. “Oh, state school and Nottingham University. He will like that,” says a charming aide who sounds suspiciously Old Etonian. Lampl himself bridles nervously at the sight of a tape recorder. “Tell me what you’re doing before switching that machine on. Gimme the plan.”
Altruist though he is, Lampl does not exude gentle beneficence. He is in his late forties, and very Wall Street – sharp suit, perma-tan, tortoiseshell spectacles and a CV that lists “body-surfing” among his leisure pursuits. He has the time-is-money directness of a hotshot entrepreneur, and a transatlantic accent acquired long after his state education at Reigate and Cheltenham grammar schools. There, he seems to have failed to get the three A-level A grades that are now a sine qua non for any Oxbridge hopeful. (“Listen, in those days, virtually no one got that.”) He did, however, win a place at Corpus Christi, Oxford, emerging with a Second in chemistry. (“Listen, in those days, that was a good degree.”)
After a series of salaried jobs, notably with the Boston Consultancy Group and International Paper, he set up his private equity firm, the Sutton Company, and made a vast fortune in a very short time. “Some people are driven to keep on and on making more and more money. I wasn’t that type. I had far more money than I needed for my own purposes. I do live quite well, but private aeroplanes and all that stuff do not really turn me on.” So he downsized to one investment portfolio, which provides his income, plus the millions he channels into the trust he set up in 1996.
His first links with new Labour were forged when Stephen Byers, as schools minister, was instigating private/public partnerships. Now Lampl’s network includes David Blunkett, Gordon Brown and many of the vice-chancellors of the 13 top universities whose admissions policies he scrutinised and found wanting after the Higher Education Funding Council published the first statistics late last year. A pragmatist and a diplomat, Lampl is currently treading a teetering line.
He declines to distil his abhorrence of “finger-pointing and posturing” to direct criticism of Brown over the Laura Spence furore. Simultaneously, he wishes to smooth ruffled Oxford feathers. “It [the row] has put them on the defensive. That is a pity. When the dust settles, let’s all work together. Let’s get some action. That’s what I’m interested in.”
Small wonder that Lampl, affluent and go-getting, received his endorsement from the Chancellor. As he says, carefully: “Gordon Brown has been aware of the work we’ve been doing for a number of years. I don’t know whether it triggered what he said. But he is very interested.”
The paradox is that Lampl, so close to new Labour, sometimes seems less an open-handed enabler than an illustration of the confusion in the government’s educational dreams. Up to a point, there is no divergence. Some projects funded by his trust – such as university summer schools for comprehensive pupils – get the on-message seal of approval. So do his aspirations to help bright state school pupils gain entrance to leading universities.
But the centrepiece of his project – a scheme (piloted successfully, he says, in Liverpool) to throw open the 100 top independent schools to clever but impoverished children – has predictably met a response he politely describes as “neutral”.
“We’ve put together a perfectly sensible plan and costed it. For £200m a year, we could open up the top independent schools in the country. What do you do about independent schools? Some people in the Labour Party say abolish them, but I think that’s a terrible thing. Why would you abolish something of quality? These are some of the best schools in the world, but entry is governed by whether you can afford to pay the freight. They should be opened up on the basis of merit.
“So far, the issue of how the private and state sector mesh is one this government hasn’t addressed. We’ve come up with an idea. We’re not talking about the posh Etons and Winchesters, but about former direct grant schools. They [the government] won’t do it because it involves selection and funding kids at private schools, two things they are ideologically against. If someone has a better idea of addressing the divide, I’d love to hear it. But I haven’t heard a practical solution.”
Does he blanch at Baroness Jay’s reminiscences of her “pretty standard grammar school” (she actually went, albeit on a scholarship, to a fee-charging school) and some Labour ministers sending their children to selective schools while advocating equality for all? “There is a lot of hypocrisy out there. The people who go to very good state schools are the same sort who go to independent schools; very middle class. Those who miss out are the ones I’m interested in; people from non-privileged backgrounds.” Does he think that the government has failed to address reform partly because some of its members are collusive in systems they claim to abhor? “Yes, I think there is that.”
In other words, Lampl and a government that has made such mileage from his research have utterly divergent visions. His vision seems to be a return to the halcyon days of the Sixties, in which grammar school children could aspire to Oxbridge on more equal terms with the public school hordes. Theirs is less precise.
In Lampl’s view, some muddle is easily avoidable. On equality of opportunity and outcome, he is clear. He sees no problem, given a fair system, of Oxbridge graduates continuing to dominate the judiciary, the medical profession and, for that matter, the living quarters of No 10. “People are uncomfortable, because they perceive that entry is not based on merit. If it were, then there would be no problem.”
I ask whether he thinks the current debate is merely a smokescreen to a class divide rooted not in the quadrangles of Magdalen College, but in inner-city schools whose alumni struggle to achieve literacy, and he says: “Dealing with the bottom 20 to 40 per cent is more important. I do think that, and we are working in that area, too. We have to address both problems. But, as a charity, I can’t do everything.”
If the government hedges its bets, then so does Lampl. He is married to a Canadian called Karen, with whom he has two sub-school-age children. “We’re not even going to talk about where they’re going to school,” he instructs. “We’re not going to get into personal stuff. Obviously, like everyone else, I’d like my children to go to a good school , but one where they will mix with a wide cross-section of society. That’s the tragedy in this country – that we segregate children. In independent schools, segregation is by class.
“At the moment, there are a lot of middle-class kids who shouldn’t be there; the ones who get pushed to the limits by their parents and the school, and who aren’t very happy. If you could open up those schools, you could open up the universities.” On selection, Lampl argues that it already pervades the system. “It is a myth that we don’t have selection in state schools. Of course we do; over and above the grammar schools. It is hugely prevalent.”
Parts of his credo may be anathema to purists, but that is hardly the issue. The more piquant point is that the fight for fairness – as pursued by Brown, Cook and Prescott – was launched from the platform of an ideology-free multi-millionaire meritocrat who espouses selection, derides government hypocrisy, declares himself “apolitical” and counts among his prime advisers George Walden, a former Tory education minister, and Eric Anderson, once head of Eton and Blair’s old housemaster. Whatever the impediments to a decent university education for state school hopefuls, no one could fault new Labour (School of Class Warfare Studies) on its own equal admissions policy.