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Former Romney colleague battles for lower-class students in Britain

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Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, a London-based nonprofit group that promotes access to higher education, says improving lower-income children's opportunities at top schools could 'add 4 percent to GDP' in Britain.

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By Bloomberg News
Saturday, July 13, 2013, 6:45 p.m.
 

LONDON — Peter Lampl, a former colleague of Mitt Romney, is a class warrior.

A retired private equity dealmaker, Lampl, 66, lives in London's fashionable Chelsea district and owns homes in New York and Florida. Yet through his Sutton Trust charity, he's challenging Britain's class system that sustains one of the industrialized world's lowest rates of social mobility.

Improving one's station in life has been a source of British anxiety since Jane Austen chronicled the strivings of the middle class 200 years ago. While Americans are now focusing on the high cost of college as a barrier to opportunity, Lampl has spent 16 years trying to open the doors of Britain's best universities to low- and middle-income students who don't have prep-school educations. He's now lobbying to have the government pay private-school tuition for worthy kids.

“We're still stuck in this time warp of a class system,” said Lampl, who has sponsored research showing class rigidity is a drag on the British economy. “If British social mobility would improve to a respectable level, it would add 4 percent to GDP because you'd have a more educated workforce.”

Inspired by Ivy League colleges that reach out to poor U.S. high school students, Lampl funds summer schools for British students at universities including Cambridge and Yale, and programs to help kids break into law and real estate.

“This country discusses social mobility, access to Oxford and Cambridge, much more than it used to,” said Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College at the University of Oxford and a former journalist. “There's an urgency here about the access debate. Peter must take some credit for that.”

The number of students from British state schools — the equivalent of public schools in the United States — getting into Britain's top 24 universities has climbed at a slower rate in the past decade compared with private school students, according to a June report from the government Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. The chances of a low-income student at a state school being admitted to Oxford and Cambridge was almost 2,000 to 1, versus 20 to 1 for a private school student, the report found.

Attending Oxford or Cambridge can be a gateway into the upper echelon of society, according to a 2009 Sutton Trust report. Almost 40 percent of chief executive officers at the 100 largest British firms attended one of the universities, as did 53 percent of lawyers at the five highest-grossing law firms.

“It's just not fair that kids from certain backgrounds are excluded from opportunities,” Lampl said. “Everyone should have the opportunity to realize their potential.”

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