Listen to this article
All tan, tailoring, big red ties, hollered greetings and firm handshakes, Sir Peter Lampl cuts an unusual figure in the corduroy world of British education, the arena he entered 15 years ago to fill his busy retirement. The former private equity executive greets me with a hoot: “Chris! How you doin’?”
Mosimann’s, a private dining club in London’s Belgravia, seems an unlikely place for a discussion about the educational attainment of Britain’s poorest children but it is one of Sir Peter’s usual haunts. Joking with the staff, who drop by intermittently to say hello (“Good to see you!”; “You’re always used to me paying. This makes a change …”; “Is that a tasting portion? Bring him the full one!”), the genial, chatty multimillionaire orders a spiced tomato juice. Deferring to his local knowledge, I copy him.
Sir Peter, 66, tells me he did not set out to become a fixture in the world of the great and good. “I had no intention of doing this, you know. I was working on my golf game. I thought maybe I should do something on the side.” Yet the Sutton Trust, the charity he funded and founded in 1997, has shaped and guided the debate on social mobility in the UK. Britons tend to think of their country as less stratified than it once was. But research by the Sutton Trust in 2005 revealed that while class deference might have largely disappeared, poor children in Britain are more likely than ever to become poor adults – and this fact is now widely known and accepted.
The research, conducted for the charity by the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) at the London School of Economics, found that “intergenerational mobility fell markedly over time in Britain, with there being less mobility for a cohort of people born in 1970 compared to a cohort born in 1958”. It concluded that mobility in Britain is of the “same order of magnitude as in the US, but that these countries are substantially less mobile than Canada and the Nordic countries”.
Its effect was immediate. Labour ministers, part of the government that took power in 1997, accepted blame for this decline (even though the youngest group studied by the research left school between 1986 and 1988). And political parties of all stripes continue to fixate on the problem of mobility. The central problem of England’s patchy education system is now considered to be the low performance of poor children. Raising mobility is, say the Liberal Democrats, the central aim of the coalition government.
The Sutton Trust research was not uncontested: studies by John Goldthorpe, the godfather of British sociology, present a much less depressing picture. But, wrote Goldthorpe last year, “Once the CEP economists – with the aid of the Sutton Trust – had successfully got across the idea of declining mobility to the socio-political commentariat, any different view had little chance of serious consideration.”
In recognition of the Sutton Trust’s victory in this argument – and Sir Peter’s role in the debate – the coalition government appointed him in 2011 as chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, a think-tank seeded by the government with £125m, which assesses what makes good schools work.
Cribbing from my guest again, I order a prawn cocktail salad to start – umming and ahhing over the main course and peering at other tables for hints. “You know what I really recommend? Pickled herring, if you like that kind of thing,” says Sir Peter. I don’t, alas. Instead, I order steak tartare, and he goes for the fish. Settling down with sparkling water, I am still puzzled by how this big beast became entangled in education. Just how did he go from barbarian at the gate to worrier at the school gate?
Social mobility, he explains, is something he has seen up close. “My father left Vienna [in 1938] when he was a schoolboy. He was still at the gymnasium – like a grammar school – so when the war finished, he didn’t have any qualifications. Can you imagine? He came to England, didn’t speak a word of English? But, this is important: what he did is he went to night school and he had a job during the day. We grew up in – I wouldn’t say poverty – but not very wealthy.”
The family lived in Batley and Wakefield, Yorkshire, before moving south to Surrey and then to Cheltenham, following his father’s work as an engineer. In each place Sir Peter attended local academically selective state schools.
In 1966 he won a place at Corpus Christi, Oxford, to read chemistry. “I ended up specialising in physical chemistry but I knew I didn’t want to be a research scientist.” After graduation he slipped into a job selling Beechams pharmaceuticals to doctors in the west of England. But not for long. “I met this guy graduating from London Business School and I discovered he was making three times what I was and I thought, ‘Jesus! You can make that kind of money.’ So I went to the London Business School [in 1971].” From there, his career picked up quite a pace. Sir Peter moved to the US to work for the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). From there he moved, in 1977, to International Paper, a BCG client.
He was soon appointed head of its real estate division, which left him a vast portfolio of land to manage. But, spotting an opportunity, he moved again, and set up the Sutton Company in 1983. He figured he could advise investors who he had been buying land from for International Paper. But he had also dealt with “some guys who didn’t have any money. They were borrowing it all from the bank. And I thought, ‘That’s kinda fun as well, right?’ So I was generating fee income by advising people and …was trying to buy companies.” And so he drifted towards what is now known as private equity (“We didn’t call it that back then,” he points out).
His first big success was in buying a business on the US west coast. “The chief executive picked me up at the airport – I was all dressed up like this [in a suit]. He said, ‘Why don’t you come back to my place for a barbecue?’ So we drove up to the house on Lake Washington, and as we were driving up, there’s a thunderstorm brewing and I noticed a windsurfer on the beach, and I casually said, ‘Boy, it’d be great to go out in this!’ And he said, ‘You wouldn’t go out in this! You’re crazy!’
“Well, what he didn’t realise was that I had competed in the world windsurfing championships. So I went out on this windsurfer in the middle of Lake Washington. Wind howling in your ears, a storm, everything. Managed to stay upright. Then we went back for the barbecue, went in the back room and shook on it.”
After demolishing the prawn cocktails, we are rapidly presented with our main courses. “This [meal] is gonna take about 10 minutes at this rate,” says Sir Peter, rattling through his herring. I take a brief pause from prodding my guest to demolish the steak tartare, while Sir Peter jokes about breaking the tape recorder so we have to do it again tomorrow.
The Sutton Company subsequently set up offices in London and Munich. Sir Peter says: “I only did 13 deals in 14 years.” But that was enough. He was still in his forties when retirement started to beckon, “So in 1996, I moved back to London. Partly because I got married to someone who was living in London. By that time, I was getting a bit bored of making money. I said, ‘I’ve made more than I could ever spend.’
“Then this Dunblane thing happened.” On March 13 1996, Thomas Hamilton entered a primary school in the Scottish town of Dunblane armed with four handguns; he murdered 16 children and a teacher before shooting himself. All the weapons were legal.
Sir Peter immediately tried to do something: “I read someone was putting together a campaign to ban handguns. Having lived in the US, I was very sensitive to it. I was worried about developing a gun culture here. There was talk of the police being armed. So I contacted the organiser. I met two dads whose five-year-old daughters had been shot dead two weeks earlier. Can you imagine that? So I said, ‘Listen, I’m happy to fund it.’ It wasn’t a lot of money – mostly just flying people down from Scotland. And we now have a ban on handguns in this country, which is phenomenal. I did it anonymously but it was such a positive thing. I thought maybe I should try to think about doing something else. And that’s what got me into education.”
He continues: “I went back to my old school, Reigate Grammar School, which was funded by Surrey county council when I was a boy. All the places were free. But when I went back, all the places were fee-paying. I thought, ‘Hang on a minute – I don’t think I would be there today!’ Then Corpus found out I had made some money, so they asked me up for lunch.
“So I had lunch with [Sir] Keith Thomas, a Welsh historian. When I was at Corpus, we had a lot of Welsh kids coming through. But he said, ‘I can’t think of anyone from south Wales in the past few years.’ I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘Well, they don’t apply and, when they do, they’re not of the standard we can take ’em.’
“It was like Rip Van Winkle. I was gone for 20 years, then, essentially, you come back, wake up and the world has changed. The world has gone backwards. I looked at some statistics. In 1996, Oxford was 46 per cent from state schools. In my day, it was two-thirds.” And, with that, the retirement was over. Alongside its support for pure research into mobility, the Sutton Trust, backed by £40m of Sir Peter’s own money, started making direct interventions.
One idea, which he was familiar with from his time in the US, was that of summer schools, where children from disadvantaged backgrounds spend time at universities so they can learn about how to apply. “I went to Oxford and I said, ‘You should be taking a lot more state school kids.’ They said, ‘The problem is they don’t apply to us.’ And I said, ‘Maybe you should be thinking about persuading them to apply.’ So then I said, ‘I’ll fund a summer school [in 1997] if you guys will run it.’ The next year we had Cambridge, Bristol, Nottingham and then the whole thing has just snowballed from there. We’ve got 1,700 this year on summer schools.”
But that wasn’t enough. “I knew the [Ivy League universities] were interested in recruiting low-middle income kids [from the UK]. I thought, ‘Why don’t we have a summer school for British kids to see if they want to go to a US university?’ So [in 2012] we got them to London for three days, then we took them to the States, then brought them back here for a residential. We’ve got a kid from Cleckheaton – near where I grew up – going to Harvard. Everything’s paid for. No debt. They get four years instead of three [at university]. Four years in a different country. This could be huge.”
A round of mandarin sorbets arrives and we’re asked if we would like dessert. I volunteer to eat one – claiming FT readers would expect it – and order one of my favourites: bread-and-butter pudding. “Do the readers need me to eat a dessert too?” asks Sir Peter. “No!” I say, sternly.
As I do my bit for the readers, the discussion moves on to Sir Peter’s personal life and his one unhappy brush with celebrity in February 2009 when, severely depressed, he went missing for a few days.
The Evening Standard’s splash – “London charity tycoon missing” – ran in huge letters across the capital. “Terrible times …I’ve been to hell and back,” Sir Peter recalls. “I went through a very rough time [during a divorce from his second wife]. I never dreamt I would be depressed. I’m not that kind of guy. I had a horrible time, I got clinically depressed …not just money but children. I don’t know how I got out of it but I did. I’ve been out of it for three years. I’m totally back to where I was. I just got married again last year, so I’m extremely happy. I love working. I love what I do. I feel great.”
So where next for education in England? His latest idea is to subsidise school places at private schools. He proposes that, for less than the cost of a state school place, the government should help pay school fees for poorer children and the squeezed middle classes. Ever the management consultancy empiricist, Sir Peter has already run a school on this basis in Liverpool, meeting the costs and assessing the effect himself. But it looks unlikely to get off the ground. “Part of it is dogma and ideology, part of it is self-interest.”
He is sceptical about the coalition’s structural reforms of English education, most of which are changes to school autonomy, as he worries they are not sustainable and scalable. He worries that even the most high-performing chains of academies – charter schools outside the municipal school systems – rely on a few great leaders. But he has a clear target – in-career training for teachers. He added: “There are 450,000 teachers – if you can raise their game, you can transform education.”
As we drift into coffee, I ask if he might spread his operations into the US. “I’m not a believer in 10-year plans. The world isn’t like that …” But he adds, “I’ve gotten friendly with Jeb Bush [former governor of Florida]. If something comes up, we might have an office in New York in a couple of years. I don’t know …” The American dream might yet need this Yorkshireman’s help.
Chris Cook is the FT’s executive comment editor
11 West Halkin Street London SW1X
Bottle of sparkling water x2 £9.50
Spiced tomato juice x2 £9.00
Prawn cocktail x2 £30.00
Orkney Island pickled herring £12.00
Steak tartare £26.00
Bread and butter pudding £9.50
Coffee x2 £9.00
Total (incl tax) £111.50
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on Sir Peter Lampl when a new story is published