• Celebrating Emily Wilding Davison

    I have just spent an amazing day in Morpeth at the Emily Inspires

    centenary celebrations for Emily Wilding Davison the suffragette who

    died pinning a Votes for Women scarf on the King's Horse in June 1913.

    She was the first martyr for women's rights. This is the speech I gave in

    the church this afternoon. June 15 2013. She is the first great feminist

    icon - all of us owe her a debt....

    It is a great honour to be here with you all today in this beautiful,

    peaceful old church.

    Reading about Emily's life and the sacrifices she made - force fed 49

    times, assaulted with an icy hose, having her cell door rammed open,

    which if it had fallen on her, would have killed her... not to mention

    the fall which so wounded her neck and back in prison and her final

    gesture of defiance and protest at the Derby...

    Emily - your courage and steadfastness in the face of adversity and

    the lesson it teaches is as valid today as it ever was.

    Every young woman today owes their wide range of life choices and

    options to the suffragettes who fought so bravely so that we could be

    free. We stand on the shoulders of giants - when the going gets tough,

    we should never forget that.

    So Emily - thank you. Thanks you for what your contemporary described

    as your 'pyrotechnic intelligence and cheerfulness' - your doggedness,

    commitment, faith and  willingness to pay the ultimate price for

    women's liberation.

    It is now up to all of us to carry your flame boldly for the next 100

    years - so that in a century's time people in an even more equal

    world will honour Emily but also the millions of individual women who

    carried Emily in their hearts and brought the revolution that started

    so long ago finally to fruition.   it seems fitting to end with a line

    from one of Emily's favourite hymns: Fight the Good Fight with all thy

    might! After all, there is still so much to do!

    Emily - your courage and steadfastness in the face of adversity and

    the lesson it teaches is as valid today as it ever was.

    Every young woman today owes their wide range of life choices and

    options to the suffragettes who fought so bravely so that we could be

    free. We stand on the shoulders of giants - when the going gets tough,

    we should never forget that.

    So Emily - thank you. Thanks you for what your contemporary described

    as your 'pyrotechnic intelligence and cheerfulness' - your doggedness,

    commitment, faith and  willingness to pay the ultimate price for

    women's liberation.

    It is now up to all of us to carry your flame boldly for the next 100

    years - so that in a century's time people in an even more equal

    world will honour Emily but also the millions of individual women who

    carried Emily in their hearts and brought the revolution that started

    so long ago finally to fruition.   it seems fitting to end with a line

    from one of Emily's favourite hymns: Fight the Good Fight with all thy

    might! After all, there is still so much to do!

    In fact it is the very violent and total nature of her struggle, her

    belief... for which she paid the ultimate price that should act as a

    beacon to women today..

    It is a hundred years since Emily died for the cause she treasured

    more than her own life. One of her favourite phrases was that of

    another even more famous female warrior, Joan of Arc : Fight and God

    will give the Victory.

    Well gathered here in this church which contains not just Emily's

    grave but that of her beloved sister, Ethel (who died when she was

    only six)  - I hope Emily, a fervent believer, is resting peacefully,

    sure in the knowledge that ultimately God did give the victory she so

    passionately desired.  or some of it anyway.

    For life is very different now. Emily had three degrees but she lived

    in a time when the only job open to her was as a governess. Today,

    young women make up over half of all university graduates, more than

    half of recently qualified solicitors, half of new doctors. We have a

    female Home Secretary, a woman in charge of the IMF and more

    importantly little girls grow up today knowing that they are equally

    valued and have equally good prospects as their male peers.

    I'm sure Emily would be glad of that.

    But we must not be complacent. Emily talked of 'Deeds not words' -

    there is no point having all these rights written as statutes if women

    do not step up and use them.

    The revolution in which Emily played such a key part is by no means

    over. I was raised by a constellation of powerful women; my mother was

    a university lecturer who had five children, my stepmother was in tony

    blair's cabinet and my aunt was the first female Director of Public

    Prosecutions. Born in 1970, I grew up in a country run by women - the

    Queen and Margaret Thatcher (whatever you think of her politics she

    showed a woman could do the top job).  I assumed that by the time I

    was 40, it would be 50/50 men and women running the world. Well... not


    The truth is we still live in a patriarchy. Only three of our top FTSE

    100 companies are run by women, women fall out of the management

    pyramid in droves once they have children, our Prime Minister talks

    about promoting women  but then has only a handful at his top table.

    The culture, particularly at the top, is still overwhelmingly blokey,

    macho and excluding of women.  But if that is to change women need to

    not drop out but to stand up and fight to change the culture.  It is up

    to every single one of us - as Emily demonstrates - to do our bit.

    I have seen too many of my highly educated peers blown off course by

    the gusty headwinds of expensive childcare, or blokey cultures at work

    or having a husband whose needs have trumped their own. They have also

    been seduced by a pink-cupcaked yummy-mummy guilt trip which has seen

    to many of them give up on their own ambitions.  This is not just

    about the pram in the hall but about men  circling the wagons of

    power, still trying to play the old tunes about whether women' have

    what it takes' to make it to the top, to join the male elite who still

    run the world. That is still a lonely place for a woman to be.

    Of course we have taken mighty strides since Emily's day: in1900 there

    were only a handful of female doctors and no women in parliament - 100

    years on things are immensely better but we are not there yet. Emily

    gave her life for her unshakeable belief that women and men were equal

    - but women still face barriers. It is still usually a woman's role to

    run the home and know where the gym kit is - men need to do their

    share to free women to grasp what is rightfully their's.

    Last week the CEO of the chartered Institute of Management gave a

    speech in which she warned that women are slipping backwards, with

    less of them making it up the ranks than ten years ago. In media where

    I work I am still too often the only woman in meetings, I wage a daily

    campaign still against sexist attitudes, news lists with no women doing

    great things - unless we women are at the table, we can't change

    anything.  And there is still much to do:  women are still oppressed by

    domestic violence, lower pay, the pornification of the culture which

    increasingly teaches our young women to value themselves only for how

    they look not for what they are and what they think. And despite 100

    years of the vote, women still do the majority of caring and domestic

    work as well as being expected to bring home the bacon.

    The equality revolution that Emily so desired is still a work in

    progress. But if we are to drive it on, we all need to play our part.

    Yes, it's hard to do the double shift - a job, a career, and manage a

    family - but that's where men need to step up to the plate and do

    their fair share too. Women need to fulfil their ambitions and

    potential. When you are thinking of throwing in the towel, deciding

    its too hard and the men can just get on with it, remember Emily. She

    wasn't just tired and guilty and frazzled and skint and pulled in too

    many directions -  she was having 4ft of tubing rammed down her

    throat, held down an forcibly fed and violated by 12 people in a grim

    prison cell to stand up for the rights that too many women now take

    for granted.

    The truth is we can't stand back and say feminsm is a dirty word and

    all the battles are won because we've got lots of equality laws on the

    stature book - we need to fight to make them real on the ground. IF WE


    The good news is that I see a reinvigoration of the feminist cause

    around me in the younger women I work with and that I meet. They are

    hungry and they are impatient... the enthusiasm with which Emily's

    legacy has been grasped on this her centenary is proof of that. My

    young colleague at The Sunday Times  Lucy Fisher has just written a

    brilliant book about Emily's life. Lucy is a war correspondent, a

    brave, beautiful fearless girl... her mother is a Northumberland

    Davison, in fact she is one of Emily's distant descendants. The fact

    that there are millions like Lucy,  bravely  taking their place in

    what was once a man's world is a tribute to Emily. I hope that having

    begun so promisingly - Lucy and her ilk now outstrip their male peers

    in terms of earning and ambition in their twenties - they carry on

    fighting the good fight and remain in the world into their thirties,

    forties and beyond. I hope the feminist ball, that my generation

    partly dropped, out of complacency that the battles were already won

    and the seductive lure of the siren rocks of yummy-mummy 1950s

    regression, will be firmly picked up by Generation Y.   But it is not

    just about young women.

    Last week new figures showed that there are a million over 65s in work.

    Many of these are women who perhaps took time out to raise their

    families who are now earning again and taking their place in the world

    - we need to recognise that women at all phases of life have much to

    offer and give them good routes back into fulfilling and well-paid

    work. Feminism is about choice. Emily valued most highly the support,

    friendship and love she received from her suffragette comrades,

    partners in the struggle. Rather than judging other women for their

    choices, or being undermining about each other, we women today, like

    those earlier comrades, must stand together. We must allow women to

    power down to raise their families if that is their choice, but then

    support them to get back to their careers if that is what they want,

    so their talents are not wasted. Most of all we must continue the

    struggle against the reactionary forces which want to push women


    Emily was passionate about social equality, we must make sure that

    talented women from poorer backgrounds get a fair crack at the

    opportunities that should be their's - I read a dreadful story in this

    morning's papers about our divided country and how twice as many kids

    from wealthy Surrey go to Oxford University than from the whole of

    Wales.  Emily believed in opportunities for women and for the poor -

    her own family (her mother was the daughter of a Morpeth publican her

    father from the upper middle classes, but who died leaving the family

    in debt) showed her the need to give life chances to those from the

    wrong side of the tracks.  There is much work still to be done. Today

    I am sure Emily would be campaigning for diversity, inclusiveness and

    equality more broadly. Not to mention battling to end the scourge of

    such modern horrors as forced marriage, the sexual exploitation of

    children and Female Genital Mutilation.  We've learnt that misogyny

    doesn't disappear, it mutates, goes underground and bubbles up in new

    forms.. We must not be complacent.

    Emily - your courage and steadfastness in the face of adversity and

    the lesson it teaches is as valid today as it ever was.

    Every young woman today owes their wide range of life choices and

    options to the suffragettes who fought so bravely so that we could be

    free. We stand on the shoulders of giants - when the going gets tough,

    we should never forget that.

    So Emily - thank you. Thanks you for what your contemporary described

    as your 'pyrotechnic intelligence and cheerfulness' - your doggedness,

    commitment, faith and  willingness to pay the ultimate price for

    women's liberation.

    It is now up to all of us to carry your flame boldly for the next 100

    years - so that in a century's time people in an even more equal

    world will honour Emily but also the millions of individual women who

    carried Emily in their hearts and brought the revolution that started

    so long ago finally to fruition.   it seems fitting to end with a line

    from one of Emily's favourite hymns: Fight the Good Fight with all thy

    might! After all, there is still so much to do!



  • Eleanor Talks about Michael Winner on BBC News

    I worked with Michael Winner for ten years as his editor - he was a strong flavour who knew he polarised readers which was why if he got a really rude letter he would always pass it on immediately and insist it ran next to his column. See this clip of me talking about him on the BBC if you'd like to know more:




  • Bemused By The New Men

    This is an edited version of a column that appeared in the Sunday Times www.sundaytimes.co.uk - it has started an interesting debate on Twitter and it emerged out of many conversations with younger men about how they can succeed at work and be the kind of fathers they want to be: increasingly they are running up against difficulties when trying to negotiate more family-friendly lives with their male bosses and are asking senior women who have been through the work/life blance mill for advice... what do you think?


    At the Everywoman awards ceremony for female entrepreneurs last week, I was sitting next to a female captain of industry. As we watched the winners trot up to the podium, collecting their gongs, each one's story more impressive than the last, she gave a hollow laugh. "It's ironic," she said, "but these days the employees I am having the most agonised work-life balance chats with aren't the women but the younger men. "These twentysomething blokes, she went on, are desperate to take their children to school and even collect them occasionally. Many have high-achieving wives who expect them to shoulder their share of the domestic burden and they are keen to take up paternity leave and flexible working.The trouble, she said with a wry smile, is the consternation this is causing among the more senior chaps. "One of the management team asked me rather plaintively last week why none of the younger blokes will go out for a drink with him after work. He'd been rather hurt," she said, asking why these younger men seemed a different species.

    This generation gap between older and younger men is an increasingly yawning chasm. Baby-boomer bosses have (mostly) now understood that in order to hang on to talented female staff in the mummy years they may have to throw them the bone of flexible working (a sneaky day at home, say, or days when they leave early and take up the email challenge once their offspring are asleep). Indeed, the hullabaloo around women in the boardroom and research showing that gender-balanced teams lead to better business outcomes are making even the most macho managers see the wisdom of hanging on to their women.

    Yet while legislation and a cultural shift have focused attention on work-life balance issues for women, for men it is still the dark ages. New research into attitudes in generation Y (the so-called millennials, because they came of age around 2000) shows how male attitudes are changing. The Pew Research Centre found that young men aged 18-34 are less career-minded than young women (66% of females aged 18-34 rate their career as one of the most important things in their lives, but just 59% of young men; a stark contrast with 1997, when the figures were the other way round). Research by the Centre for Talent Innovation also finds that young men are just as keen to spend time with their families as young women.

    The evidence of this generational shift is all around. On Twitter last week a young father wrote: "16 days away . . . Kid at home, growing. Torture . . . I mean grown-ups out there with kids . . . How do you do this?" That is traditionally mummy territory; I remember weeping in the cab as I went off on my first foreign trip when my daughter was young. It is a sign of growing gender equality that young men now feel able to vocalise those feelings too. It's of a piece with them being expected to be at the birth, to change nappies, to be handy with a bottle and generally to be just as much of a hands-on parent as the mother. The men I meet rhapsodise, worry and talk about their kids as much as any mother. These new domestic dads are even being recognised by companies such as Procter & Gamble: last week The Wall Street Journal reported a new rash of male-oriented mops and laundry products. Yet while older men increasingly cut women some slack when it comes to parenthood and domestic responsibilities, they are far less forgiving or likely to offer such flexi-deals to younger men. This attitude clash between the young man and the old is the new front line in the work-life wars and causing just as much heartache. A young dad I know who works in advertising told me how he was asked by his boss to meet an important client on a Saturday. He declined, explaining his wife was away on business and he was in sole charge of his three children. His boss was appalled and questioned his commitment. This is far from a lone incident. A banker I know who had the temerity to take two weeks of paternity leave ran the gauntlet of endless jokes about whether he had finished breastfeeding when he returned to the office (his colleagues left breast pads on his desk). Another friend who turned down an assignment, explaining to his boss that he didn't want to have to work late because he wanted to see his kids, was asked: "Why would you want to do that?"

    The truth is that a long-hours macho culture is still alive and kicking in business and in professional life. Older men who sacrificed school concerts, parents' evenings and bedtimes on the altar of their careers, serving their families by climbing as high and as fast as they could, are understandably hostile to younger men who have different priorities. When a new father says to his boss "I don't want that assignment" or "I can't do that because of my kids" he is, in essence, saying, "I am not like you; I do not want to be like you." That is never an easy conversation to have, but it is made well nigh impossible when the man in question is your boss and had, until that point anyway, seen you as a future member of the management classes.

    No wonder angst-ridden young fathers are buttonholing high-flying working mothers such as my lunch companion to ask for tips. And how ironic that it is now far easier to be a woman negotiating all of this than it is to be a man. There is a solution, however. I recently heard a fascinating speech by a woman who works for Ernst & Young, the accountancy. She described how it now let all its employees work flexibly — a boon to those with elderly parents, hobbies or a volunteering passion as well as those with parental responsibilities. Essentially, so long as clients' needs are met, everyone in the firm can work where and how they please. So far, productivity is up and the firm has saved a fortune in office space, overheads and transport. Technology means the bosses can track their employees' work rate and movements and the employees' autonomy over their work-life balance has led to far greater workforce satisfaction and retention rates.

    As the female entrepreneurs accepted their prizes last week, my new friend and I laughed at how our own struggles to balance work and family were being repeated and our solutions sought by men. I suppose that's progress. But it's no wonder the Mad Men old guard — used to the camaraderie of a blokey culture of "work hard, play hard, never get home till after bedtime" — are so bemused by the new men.



  • Onesies

    This morning I was giggling when I heard Vogue Editor Alexandra Shulman and Amy from The Only Way is Essex discussing the do's and don'ts (for me definitely don'ts) of Onesy wearing on Woman's Hour. For those of you who missed it on Sunday here is an edited version of my Sunday Times column on this very subject! What do you think?

    Popping into John Lewis the other day to buy a few essentials — tights, soap, a couple of birthday presents — I stopped dead in my tracks. For there, resplendent among the Calvin Klein pyjama bottoms, gentlemen's socks and elegant boxers, was a singularly repellent garment: a dark blue patterned babysuit intended for a fully grown man.

    Now I hope that the spectre of the onesie has so far not darkened your days and that you remain in a state of Elysian bliss where all-in-one fluffy suits are strictly the preserve of toddlers — who, after all, have no say in sartorial matters. If so, say goodbye to your innocence. The onesie is everywhere, like a rash across our great nation.

    It's not just John Lewis. Britain's high streets are awash with adult babysuits; retailers from Primark to Fair Isle, Asos to eBay are drowning in all-in-ones destined to make so-called grown-ups look like overgrown Teletubbies. There is a onesie for every taste: a male camouflage version can be had for £155, the John Lewis version costs £160 and comes in three colours and — crikey — a men's "rabbit onesie sleepsuit with ears" (could anyone look alluring in that?) can be bought online for £35.

    Celebrities are pushing the look, too. Brad Pitt was photographed the other day in a black zip-up version (proof that even one of the sexiest men in the world can't pull this style off with anything like aplomb) and Harry Styles (Brad for teenyboppers, a member of the boyband One Direction) has been pictured in a grey sweatshirt version.

    The onesie phenomenon has been building for a while. Last year, while visiting friends in Hertfordshire, I was ambushed by the 12-year-old son of my hosts watching telly in a blue fleece dinosaur version. Indeed, so besotted by it was he that a row ensued as his mother tried to persuade him to take it off because all that nylon had got decidedly whiffy. Next to him on the sofa his sister and — eek — his mother were similarly attired (one in pink fleece, the elder in Primark pink cotton).

    When I protested, my friend assured me they were all the rage. I'm afraid she's right. An active Mumsnet thread on the subject from last week is full of mothers eulogising their onesies and — worse — crowning them "acceptable Mumsnet attire". One mother blogs about how her son's teacher wore a Superman variety to school, while another confesses that her husband has one in the same style. (The mind boggles.) The largest cohort of onesie-wearers, however, are students: they claim it's the ideal garb for those who spend large chunks of the day lolling around the house, and in freezing digs it has the advantage of keeping you warm during an all-night essay crisis. But is this really what we want? Or is the widespread adoption of onesies a development we should worry about? I would say: hell yes, particularly since they are increasingly emerging from the privacy of people's homes onto the street. It's bad enough that millions of us now infantalise ourselves by lolling around in adult babysuits in front of the telly — but onesies off the sofa and in the outside world and teamed with the grisly Ugg boot? It has to stop.

    This is not just about aesthetics. I am convinced that the onesie is a symptom of a wider western malaise. At arguably our island's greatest moment, after victory in the Second World War, even children wore proper clothes. Women wore gloves and girdles; chaps wore hats and proper shirts. With no Lycra leggings, shellsuits, velour tracksuit bottoms or onesies to slob about in, getting dressed meant being trussed and constricted, putting on a respectable outfit ready for serious action in the real world. I've come to believe that our desire to live in babygrows is a symbol of our soft, infantalised society. I mean, what next? Alcopops sold in baby bottles with rubber teats to suck on? Chocolate mushed into baby gloop so we don't have to chew? Adult nappies, so we don't have to get off the sofa and go to the loo?

    We hear a lot about the nanny state; perhaps the onesie is the ultimate proof of our cotton wool-wrapped existence. Maybe when the history of 21st-century Britain is written, the rise of the onesie will be listed alongside the loss of our last aircraft carrier and our inability to renew Trident, build more runways or decide on a growth strategy as one of the ultimate symbols of our post-imperial decay. Perhaps we will look back and see that while the cold winds of recession roared around us, rather than manning up and working harder to get back on track, we retreated from reality into a babyish cocoon.

    Of course I am being a little facetious, but there is a serious point here. Visiting relatives in Dubai last week, I was struck not only by the ambition of the vision that has transformed a sandpit into the Las Vegas of the Gulf, but also by the incredibly high sartorial standards of all Dubai's inhabitants. Ladies dress in skyscraper heels, full slap and up-to-the-minute fashion just to eat a sandwich for lunch. The glitzy arcades teem with cash-rich Arabs, Asians and Africans flaunting their wealth and energy. It's not just Dubai, either. These days, to leave Britain and fly to the east is to realise that wealth, dynamism and modernity increasingly reside there, not at home. I defy anyone to visit Shanghai or Beijing and not be impressed by the vigour, work ethic and sheer transformational power of the Asian tiger. While we faff about trying to decide whether to have one more runway, they build eight. While we stifle growth with endless regulation and committees, they get on with it. We were the future once; we sure as hell aren't now.

    It may sound superficial, but that aspiration and can-do attitude is embodied in the way the citizens of these new worlds dress. I arrived in Beijing earlier this year confident that as a Londoner I could cut the sartorial mustard but immediately felt dowdy and provincial in the face of the super-slick, fashion-obsessed young Chinese. Walking around the Forbidden City, they posed with bling handbags and designer shoes, their pride in their nation reflected in their pride in themselves.

    Rather than slobbing out in our onesies, we Brits must realise that if we are to compete with the emerging global superpowers in the coming century, we have to stop being complacent, engage our much-vaunted brains and superior creativity and get grafting. Repeat after me: burn that onesie and build a new Britain. 



  • Sutton Trust's Summer School

    Last week I was lucky enough to go on social mobility charity, The Sutton Trust's first ever summer school which took bright British kids from state schools and poor backgrounds to the US to check out the amazing courses and bursaries on offer for talented young people over there. It was one of the most fascinating trips I have ever done - the kids were completely amazing, all stars of their own schools and it was a privilege to spend time with them. More seriously, Britain and particularly our elitist universities have got to up their game when it comes to helping those from different backgrounds feel at home and improve their pastoral care and professor time: if they are charging £9,000 a year, students now have to feel they are getting value for money. What follows is an edited version of a piece that appeared in the Sunday Times last weekend - to read more go to www.sundaytimes.co.uk


    They are impossible to miss. Amidst the hustle of a pre-Olympic Heathrow Terminal Three, the 65 teenagers, of all hues and sizes, sporting sunflower yellow rucksacks, is shadowed by a smaller group of anxious mothers. “She’s never been away before,” a woman says sadly. Her daughter, head resplendently crowned with a mighty twist of black braids, is a picture of fond irritation: “Go mum! Honest, I’ll be fine.”

    And they are off. brandishing passports and boarding passes, instantly expert despite most having never flown before. Camera phones at the ready, they snaped the escalators, departure board, gate and even the plane itself. Squealing with delight, they discover that Stephanie, a small, shy, brown-haired girl from the Wirral, was celebrating her 17th birthday.

    “It’s the best birthday I’ve ever had ever,” she beams. “I’ve never been on a plane let alone to the States. But this is my ticket to a whole new life. Studying in America will give me a new start.”

    This group of hyper-talented British state school pupils from low-income families are at the start of an all-expenses-paid tour last week to explore what some top American colleges might have to offer them. It is funded by the Sutton Trust, a charity that campaigns for better social mobility through education.

    Corey, a cherubic half-Jamaican, half-Irish boy from Tottenham, north London, with a large diamond star in his ear, seems to sum up the view of the group when he says: “There’s more hope for someone like me in America. They seem to value kids like us more, they are more generous with money, they will pay me to study there. If I study in Britain I will be massively in debt.”

    Corey, however, is exactly the kind of young man that UK Plc, mired in a third quarter of recession, needs to build a brighter future. As well as being an Olympic platinum sports ambassador – he is an athletics star – he is taking A levels in maths, further maths, history, English, politics and psychology. He used to want to be prime minister but he’s lost faith in British politics because “both parties are the same” and now “wants to make a life for myself in the States”.

    Why do academic prodigies from poor backgrounds feel that Britain is letting them down? Are their chances really better in America?

    IT is not just the underprivileged who are looking across the Atlantic. An increasing band of young Britons, faced with rising tuition fees at home, are choosing to go to university in America. A record 8,861 UK youngsters opted to study in the US in 2009-10 and preliminary evidence suggests interest has surged dramatically in 2011-12.

    Now that a degree is such a major investment – new research last week showed that those studying in England should expect to finish university with debts of £59,100 (the average tuition fees is now £8630 and a kid has to live somewhere and eat too) – young people are looking for the best possible return on their investment.

    American colleges — with their heavy accent on pastoral care, small classes, pick-and-choose “liberal arts” and science curriculums, plenty of professorial face-time and excellent financial packages for those on low incomes — have never been a better bet.

    At our top private schools, increasing numbers of pupils are opting for the Ivy League over Oxbridge. Chris Ajemian, who runs Cates Tutoring and Educational Services, helps many high-end international students through the application process. He says Britain is his fastest growing market. Now he is shepherding the Sutton Trust kids round Yale, Wesleyan, Trinity, Princeton, Colombia, Harvard and many more and intensively tutoring them on how to up their scores on the all-important SAT college tests.

    On the first morning at Yale, Sir Peter Lampl, founder and funder of The Sutton Trust , explains that he decided to set up this US summer school because these prestigious American colleges offer such a good deal to poor bright kids.

    Helping them is his passion. Research he has commissioned shows that social mobility in Britain has gone backwards since the 1950s when clever boys from poor backgrounds – like Lampl himself — could access Oxbridge and success via grammar schools, direct grant schools and assisted places.

    Lampl is haunted by the notion that if he had been born in 1990 rather than 1950 he would never have gone to Oxford, London Business School, Boston Consulting and then on to found a seriously lucrative business in New York. These days, he uses his considerable wealth to help poor bright kids access the best education there is.

    Thus far, his efforts have been concentrated on setting up Summer Schools at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities in the UK for children from low-income families where no-one had ever been to college before or from schools which had never sent a child to a good university. But after a meeting with Fulbright (the organisation which helps predominantly postgraduate students from America and Britain study in each other’s countries) he decided to fund this trip.

    To the kids, it is all free: Lampl is paying for their flights, food and even excursions including a Broadway show, boat trip round Manhattan and picnic in Central Park.

    THROUGHOUT the transatlantic flight yelps of joy emanate from the yellow-rucksacked ranks. At JFK they cheer the yellow taxis and mob Dunkin’ Donuts. On the long coach ride through the Bronx and up the Connecticut freeway to Yale University in New Haven, the hubbub never dies. This is the trip of a lifetime and they are not wasting a second.

    Selected from an original 700 applicants from schools and sixth form colleges all over the UK, to earn their place, they needed A-star A-level predictions, a family income under £40,000 and the kind of inspirational life story that admissions deans look for in the “personal statements” and essays that open the doors to top US colleges.

    All are not only clever, but musical, or artistic and engaged in their communities. Nick, the son of a landscape gardener, heads up South Devon Young Conservatives and his own social enterprise; Jack is head boy of the new JCB Academy in Derby; Gabriella, from Newlyn in Cornwall is home-schooled and has just made a film about her region for the Olympics.

    They take the grandeur of Yale’s faux Oxbridge-medieval in their stride. They eat New Haven’s famous Pepe pizza and lounge on the grass to the manor born. Their American hosts are warm and welcoming, stressing their own humble backgrounds, how Yale has helped them and the richness of the academic offering and support.

    On the first morning Lempl welcomes his protégés with a speech in a grand lecture hall at Yale. “Yale is one of the great universities of the world,” he tells them, dressed in a sharp navy blue suite and pink tie and standing at a lectern. “I went to Oxford — but I have to say that if I was young now and choosing between Oxford and Yale I would choose Yale because it gives more breadth and depth of study.

    “To be successful in a career these days you need international experience, companies are global, you should be too. I’ve brought you here because Britain is just a small island off the coast of Europe, while America is a a vast and exciting place, full of possibility.

    “Ninety-three per cent of British kids are educated in state schools and hardly any of them are taking advantage of the opportunities on offer in the US. I want that to change. Yale, for instance, has a £12billion endowment. That means it offers needs-blind admission to students — which means if you make the cut, they will pay all your expenses. That is a great offer.”

    These kids do not need convincing. They attend taster seminars on religion and medicine, galaxies and universes, the outlaw in film and women, cooking and culture. I am struck by the care and skill of the professors and the wide-ranging and quirky mix of content. It is a far cry from the compulsory Anglo-Saxon tutorials of Oxford. This is all about finding your metier, exploring your interests. It suits kids who want eventually, say, to study engineering but fancy doing some languages, philosophy and psychology on the way.

    The next morning, driving past clapboard houses and lakes to look around Wesleyan University beside the COnnecticut River, I talk to Rob, from Dagenham a giant of a boy with a sharp mind. His lively blue eyes fill with tears when he tells me that his dad died earlier this year.

    “There’s more for me here in America than in England,” he says. “In the UK it is kids who have been to private school who get on, who run the country, not people like me – just look at the Cabinet. In England I am immediately defined by my accent, my background. Out here I can be anything. Somewhere like Oxford is snobby — it would be easier for my friends and sister to go on relating to me if I came to the USA. I grew up on a council estate I don’t want to lose my roots, or who I am in order to fit in. Out here I don’t have to. In England I would.”

    When I broach the subject of tuition fees, he becomes really angry. “It’s all very well for all these privately educated types in government to say that you don’t have to pay back the £27,000 it would cost me in tuition fees if I studied in Britain until you are earning well. That doesn’t help with living expenses which will put up the debt considerably.

    “And don’t forget that £27,000 is more than most families round me earn in a year. It’s really put off my friends from applying to university. What we need in the UK is needs-blind admissions like they do in the US for kids from poor backgrounds. At the moment it just feels like no-one wants us, that there is no place for us in British society, that no one cares.”

    Rob has a point. Social mobility in Britain is going backwards. There are more Etonians in the present coalition cabinet than there are women; 74% of judges and top medics were privately educated — and even 54% of senior journalists. It is easy to see why Rob doesn’t feel the British establishment is for “the likes of us”.

    Out here though, the red carpet is being rolled out for these kids. Samantha, a small blonde from a tiny village outside Newcastle (she lives with her grandparents as she never knew her father, and her mother died when she was young), is overwhelmed by the welcome. Every prospectus underlines the commitment to financial aid.

    The admissions deans tell tales of picking blueberries in the woods, swimming in waterfalls, endless sports, clubs and facilities; and they even hand out their personal email addresses to the group.

    “They really seem to care,” says Samantha. “That’s so different from the UK where admission is all about grades. In the US the personal statement and essay is almost as important.”

    “I went to an open day at Oxford,” says Sarah from Luton. “The first thing this girl with a plummy accent said to me as we walked around Christ Church was that if I walked on the grass in Tom quad I’d get fined £50. I just thought how stiff and stuffy. It didn’t make me want to go there.”

    Chloe, a creamy-skinned blond from Essex, whose mother is a cleaner, adds: “They just don’t get it. I couldn’t afford to go to Oxford. Just the transport to get there is too expensive for my family to manage. But if I came to Yale they would give me $1,000 upfront for a computer and a winter coat, pay my airfares, tuition and living costs. I can work on campus and come away with no debt. If I stayed in the UK it would cost me £27,000 in tuition fees and all my living expenses on top of that.”

    It is easy to forget just how hard life is for kids on really low incomes. Stephanie, from the Wirral, tells me how she had wanted to attend an open day at Cambridge but couldn’t afford the £90 it would cost to get there – neither her school, nor the college would pay.

    “My father works for the church, my mother looks after my three sisters,” she explained. “We couldn’t afford for me to have oboe lessons so I taught myself off YouTube.” At the end of every academic year she sells her text books so she can afford to buy the ones she needs for the following term.

    Farah, who came to the UK from Uzbekistan when she was six, wants to be a doctor. She would be the first person in her family ever to go to college. “But since they cut Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) I work 12-hour shifts in a sunglasses shop in Westfield to pay for my fares to sixth form college and to buy lunch. Working so much means I am really tired when I am trying to do my school work.”

    The group nod sympathetically, sharing similar stories. It is clear the loss of EMA is yet more evidence to them that the state does not care.

    Saidatu, the braided princess I first met back at Heathrow, lives in a council flat in the notorious estates around south London’s Elephant and Castle. “All the boys I know are in gangs,” she says. “Lots of them are already in prison. I want to be a forensic phscyhologist and work in prisons to help them.”

    She is already nominated as a Young Leader in her community. The boys, she says, “really encourage me, they say, go for it, like I am going to do well for all of us.”

    She wants to study at super-liberal Wesleyan which has a strong history of social justice and where undergraduates can be part of a programme which helps in local prisons. “I’ve always felt like an American. There is so much more I can be here than at home.”

    Sarah, from Luton, tells me she also wants to read psychology. Her dad is not around — “he’s gone back to Nigeria” — and her mother works shifts as a support worker for the mentally ill. “For as long as I can remember I’ve just wanted to get as far away from Luton as I can. I don’t want to be stuck there.”

    The rest of her school mates, she says, do not share her level of achievement or ambition. Why is she different? “I have a work ethic. I always have motivation. I am like a sponge — I just soak up information. I’ve always had a dream about America, I reckon it’s easier for a person like me to make it here; my background won’t be held against me. I would like to come here and never go back.”

    Over and over again they say that in the US it is ability that counts, not what you sound like or who you know. Even the prospect of sharing a room at college with an unknown “roomy” doesn’t put them off, nor the absence of alcohol (no drinking till 21), nor the – to me – almost oppressive earnestness of the American students or almost cult-like atmosphere of some of the campuses.

    As the days go by, the kids grow more and more confident. They become fluent in American collegeese (freshmen, sophomores, sororities, fraternities) and start asking super-sharp questions about the percentage of successful applicants, the necessary SAT scores, funding packages (grants or loans) and the availability of jobs on campus.

    On Wednesday, after visiting the truly magnificent Colombia campus in Manhattan, they wander through Central Park, take in shopping and the Museum of Modern Art and have tea with the British Consul in the Residence. Scrubbed up in their dresses and suits the boisterous, nervous teens who left Heathrow have become a roomful of glamorous and confident young people.

    After just four days they are noticeably more grown up and articulate. Glowing with the joyful discovery of their own potential, they charm possible future sponsors of the programme. Lampl says that he hopes that at least half of these kids will end up at a US university. The Sutton Trust will help them apply, pay the entrance fees for their applications and coach them through the tricky multiple choice US exams (SATs and CATs). Next year he plans to run three more US summer schools.

    Will they miss England and their families if they go abroad to study? “A bit,” says Nick, a triplet from Torquay, “but my folks are scared when they leave Devon and going to America will be the best and most exciting thing I could possibly do in my life.

    “I’m energetic, I’m busy, I want to do loads of stuff both in terms of studying and being involved in college life. American universities just offer so much. I really feel that at Yale or Colombia I could really run around at a high octane pace and emerge with no debt and the world as my oyster.”

    At present the exodus is only a trickle, but it is gathering pace. If the UK is going to hang on to its brightest young talents, the government and the universities are going to have to offer them far more than it currently does. If not, we will all be the losers.



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