History Boy

History Boy

Outgoing CEO Lee Elliot Major reflects on twelve years at the Sutton Trust.
on January 30, 2019

Twelve and half years as a Sutton Trust employee. It’s been cathartic and emotional clearing out my stuff accrued after 4000 working days at the Trust. Among the yellowing papers was a Mamma Mia themed party invite I once cobbled together for my four-year old daughter. She’s now a teenager and doesn’t want me anywhere near her parties. A decade for a parent goes by in a flash.

A photograph with Cherie Blair brought me back to my second week at the Trust. In the autumn of 2006 Cherie hosted a reception for us at Number 10. Sir Peter Lampl was happy to throw me in at the deep end – as long as I did up the top button of my shirt. In the pursuit of social mobility (and smartly dressed) I went on to meet millionaires, education ministers, media moguls, and the world’s greatest education minds.

I had the surreal experience of introducing Michael Gove to Jeb Bush at a conference in the United States. At the time both harboured ambitions to lead their respective countries. Before Gove had arrived, the American delegates had mistaken me for the then Education Secretary. For a moment I felt all powerful. And then very old.

Yet for all this hobnobbing my imposter syndrome clings on. I’m still waiting for that tap on the shoulder and a voice telling me the game’s up: “OK Lee, we’ve finally caught up with you. We all know you don’t belong here. We’re going to escort you out of the building and take you back from whence you came.” Your history, the research shows, stays with you. I’ve found that even famous people suffer self-doubt; they just cover it up well.

But beware pompous types who post-rationalise the past to predict the future. It’s hard to predict a research hit. When we commissioned a guide to help teachers improve the learning of poorer pupils we had no idea what it would become. Now snappily entitled the Education Endowment Foundation teaching and learning toolkit, it has been used by two thirds of schools across the country. It’s been replicated across the world. I’ve heard Whitehall officials claim it was all due to careful Government planning. Rubbish! It started as a lucky punt, put together on a shoe string by an entrepreneurial charity.

It’s astonishing what a few like-minded people can achieve. From the Trust’s donors and partners I’ve learnt the power of the “can do” spirit. If you don’t ask, you won’t get. I’d rather suffer the embarrassment of being turned down than live a life never knowing what might have been. We’ve raised £40 million for the Trust from outside funders – a testament to its compelling cause.

Never underestimate what those around you can contribute. On the suggestion of a member of staff, I agreed to answer anonymous questions in front of the Sutton Trust team. ‘CEO questions’ was far more daunting than being grilled on the BBC Today programme. Many good things came from that group discussion.

What gives me most hope are the young people the Trust helps. Our alumni have overcome huge barriers to be where they are now – teachers, researchers, doctors, lawyers, government advisers, MPs, hedge fund managers, even Sutton Trust staffers. I’ll cherish the thank you messages from beneficiaries collected over 12 and half years. I’ll take with me the advice from one impressive young man from Dagenham now studying at Harvard. “Just do what the posh kids do,” he said. ‘Wing it.” Quite right.

Lee will be the country’s first Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter.

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