Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, has been awarded an honorary Doctorate in Civil Law at Durham University today. The award is in recognition for his work to improve social mobility through education.

Awarding the degree, Steve Higgins, Professor of Education at Durham, said:

Sir Peter Lampl’s life is the story of social mobility and the transformative power of education. He grew up on a Council estate in Wakefield, Yorkshire, the son of a Viennese emigré who fled to Britain in 1938. When Peter was 11, the family moved south to Surrey and then to Gloucestershire to follow his father’s successful career as an engineer.

The move had a profound impact on Sir Peter’s educational prospects – an experience that would ignite a life’s passion.  At Pate’s Grammar School in Cheltenham, it was expected that high achieving boys should consider Oxford and Cambridge. Sir Peter has said that if it was not for those high expectations he would almost certainly not have applied for, and gained a place at Oxford to study chemistry. He subsequently gained an MBA at the London Business School.

A highly successful career as a business entrepreneur followed. He worked for The Boston Consulting Group in Boston, Paris and Munich. He held senior executive positions at International Paper, the world’s largest paper company. In 1983 he created the Sutton Company, a private equity firm, establishing offices in New York, London and Munich. By the mid-1990s Peter had benefited significantly from the company’s success and became one of the 200 wealthiest people in the UK.

Sir Peter’s first experience of philanthropy was prompted by one of the most tragic events in recent British history. In 1996, sixteen five and six year olds and their teacher were killed in Dunblane, Scotland by a gunman using legally owned weapons. Sir Peter wanted to do something to help. He decided to fund on an anonymous basis the national campaign to ban the ownership of handguns. It led to a free vote in the House of Commons creating a law making it illegal to carry such arms in the UK. This successful campaign demonstrated the potential of what Sir Peter has termed ‘strategic philanthropy’.

On his return from America he was shocked to discover that educational opportunities for low and middle income children had regressed. At Oxford and Cambridge, state school admissions had declined by 20 percentage points. He has said that nowadays “a kid like me had little to no chance of making it to Oxbridge or another Russell Group university”. His old grammar school which was a private school funded by the state so that all the places were free was now “all fee-paying”. Sir Peter founded the Sutton Trust to tackle this. Its mission is “to improve educational opportunities for young people from non-privileged backgrounds and increase social mobility.” It may appear a simple aim, but he often describes the work as “like pushing water uphill”.

The Trust’s first programme was a summer school at Oxford, giving bright 17-year-olds, from families where no one has been to university, first-hand experience of university; many of whom thought a prestigious university “was not for the likes of them”. They spent a week at Oxford experiencing university life. It was a huge success: many subsequently ended up enrolling at Oxford or other top universities. Today the Trust supports summer schools at nine leading universities, including Durham, helping 1,800 students every year. The model was taken up by Government to provide similar programmes at universities across the country.

This became the Trust’s modus operandi: identifying educational inequities through its research, piloting and evaluating programmes to help, and then getting Government or others to scale up these interventions nationally. He says the Trust has had an impact beyond his wildest dreams. It has commissioned more than 120 research studies and funded more than 200 programmes – from the early years to primary and secondary school, to university access and entry to the professions. It has helped hundreds of thousands of children. Having personally invested tens of millions of pounds in the Trust over the last 16 years, Peter is acknowledged as the UK’s leading educational philanthropist. Sir Peter was knighted in 2003.

The Sutton Trust has put the issue of low social mobility on the political map through its landmark study by the London School of Economics in 2005. This showed that alongside the United States, Britain has the lowest level of social mobility of any developed country for which there is data. The Trust has also supported education research at Durham University across a wide range of areas including widening access to higher education, research into access to grammar schools, and the evidence for what is effective in teaching and learning in schools which led to the development of the ‘Pupil Premium Toolkit’ by a team of Durham researchers. Peter has taken a personal interest in many of these programmes and frequently cites Durham research. His work in supporting access to higher education over the past decade has been inspirational.

In early 2011 the Government announced that it had awarded £125 million to be spent over 15 years to the Sutton Trust as the lead charity to establish a major new programme to boost the attainment of the country’s most disadvantaged children, following an open competition involving 15 leading charities. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has identified and will continue to identify innovative proposals from schools, teachers, local authorities and charities to improve the attainment of poor pupils in the country’s most challenging schools – creating a lasting educational legacy for hundreds of thousands of the most needy children in our society. Peter, who is the EEF’s Chairman, likens the foundation to ‘a gigantic do-tank’. His role in the EEF is by itself an outstanding achievement.

Today’s ceremony is a celebration of the educational achievements of the Graduands gathered here today – many of whom I am sure will themselves go on to achieve great things themselves. We are fortunate that in Sir Peter we have a champion of educational opportunity for those less fortunate in society, so they too can fulfil their life’s potential.

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