How philanthropy can have impact through research

How philanthropy can have impact through research

Expert opinion

Growing up in Yorkshire and then Surrey in the ‘60s, I benefited from an excellent state-funded education that helped me get to Oxford University and into a successful career in private equity.

But after working in the US for two decades, I moved back to the UK in the mid-90s and was shocked to find how things had changed: there weren’t nearly as many undergraduates from working-class backgrounds at my Oxford college and you had to pay fees to go to my old school.

It struck me that a kid growing up in similar circumstances to me - the son of immigrants who came to the UK with no qualifications and limited English skills – wouldn’t have the same chances as I did. They’d be less likely to go to the best schools, less likely to access the most selective universities and less likely to get a top job.

In the time that I’d been away from the UK, social mobility hadn’t just stalled, it had declined.

Since 1997, I’ve invested £50m in the Sutton Trust, a ‘do-tank’ I founded to improve social mobility through education. As a small and independent charity, how do we make sure that every penny we spend is having the biggest possible impact on outcomes for disadvantaged young people?

In the direct support we offer to 3,500 young people each year, independent evaluation is key. We constantly review how we implement programmes like our residential summer schools, as well as their outcomes. Doing this means we only scale-up and invest further in approaches with proven results.  

Of course there will always be a limit to the numbers of young people we can support effectively through our programmes. To have a long-term and significant impact on social mobility, the key is to combine investment in direct support with investment in research, policy and advocacy.

Commissioning high-quality research has helped us to expose the reality of low social mobility in the UK and keep the issue high on the national agenda.  In what I call the ‘virtuous circle’, this in turn can lead to the biggest source of leverage of all: informing Government education policy and education spending.  

For example, in 2012 we published research that found a 19 month gap in school readiness between the richest and poorest children at age 5. To help close this gap, we argued that plans to extend the existing number of free nursery education hours each week for all three and four year olds should focus on intensive support for two to four year olds from the most disadvantaged families. As a result the Government now provides 15 hours a week of early learning to disadvantaged two year-olds, in addition to three and four year-olds.

Because of this policy, informed by our research, more young people from poorer homes start school at a similar standard of learning to their richer classmates. The potential impact of that is huge. 

This expert opinion is tagged under:

  • Children & young people
  • Causes
  • Education