The chairman of one of the UK’s leading social mobility charities has defended two leading private schools which turned down donations to fund scholarships earmarked for white working class boys.
Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, which supports educational programmes for 5,000 promising British students from disadvantaged backgrounds each year, said singling out any particular group for support was “obnoxious”.
“We’ll take the best kids, but carving out money for a certain group is a slippery slope,” he said.
His comments come after the Times reported that Dulwich College in London and Winchester College in Hampshire had declined a bequest totalling more than £1m to support the fees of white working class boys from Bryan Thwaites, a prominent scientist and academic who himself attended both schools on scholarships.
White working class boys are among the most poorly performing of any ethnic group in British schools, but the decision by the two elite institutions to rule out targeted scholarships has rekindled a wider debate over interpretations of equality legislation and the best way to promote social mobility for students from all backgrounds.
Sir Bryan told the Financial Times: “It is quite desperate the way the white cohort is at the bottom of the heap.” He said he was “disappointed” at the decision based on racial equality legislation and that he would instead channel funding to support state schools.
He argued that for the private schools “to be shown to be concerned about the underprivileged white population would be a tremendous positive thing for their reputation.”
Trevor Phillips, the writer and former chair of the government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, argued in a column in the December issue of the magazine Standpoint that he had been consulted half a dozen times in the past five years by organisations discouraged by lawyers and “squeamish” about creating bursaries for a particular minority group.
Joe Spence, head of Dulwich College, said that advice from more than one law firm suggested such scholarships could lead to a legal challenge on the basis of racial discrimination.
He stressed that his decision to reject the scholarships was taken on broader grounds. “The minute we start defining special needs and interests for scholarships is the minute we lose,” he said. “Everyone arrives at Dulwich not as a holder of a white working class bursary, or because they are black, but because they passed our entrance tests and have a right to be here on equal terms.”
Winchester College said in a statement that it had established schemes to reach under-represented communities but added: “Notwithstanding legal exceptions to the relevant legislation, the school does not see how discrimination on grounds of a boy’s colour could ever be compatible with its values.”
Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think-tank which has in the past criticised as a distraction the use of the white working class label, said: “I would probably prefer a large number of funded places for all working class pupils.”
He added that scholarships to private schools were “probably the greatest engine for recreating social inequality and barrier to social mobility.”