British education is blessed with numerous charitable organizations, which orbit our schools and universities like the rings of Saturn. Most of them are almost as enigmatic and sometimes give only slightly more signs of life. So what exactly do they all do?
In truth, they vary from large think tanks to tiny trusts administering sums of money that have been eroded by inflation but can still provide useful assistance to needy students. Lists of charities can be found online (for example www.charitychoice.co.uk) but a useful resource is still the printed material, usually to be found in libraries, in publications such as the Educational Grants Directory or the Charities Digest. There are also significant charitable funds administered by the City of London livery companies, which were founded in order to represent particular trades but now have mostly philanthropic functions, often concentrating on education.
Perhaps the most prominent educational charity at present is the highly energetic Sutton Trust, founded by Sir Peter Lampl in 1997. The Trust recently published a report highlighting the underperformance of the ablest British youngsters in mathematics compared with their equivalents in other OECD countries. Such research complements the Trust’s emphasis on access projects enabling talented children to excel whatever their background, an aim that the homogeneous comprehensive system has sometimes failed to achieve. Another aspect of this approach has been the Trust’s argument that poorer families should have access to the private sector with the help of public money that would otherwise have been spent on them in state schools.
Rich and various as the charitable sector is, it is perhaps a pity that individuals may find it hard to access significant help even when they are both talented and in financial need. Larger funds tend to be only accessible to institutions and agencies with programmes that are consistent with the charities’ purposes. The money received by successful individual candidates is usually small, typically £300-£500, with particularly little help available to postgraduates. Moreover, there are often restrictions on the age, location or occupation of candidates. Educational charities can seem like something of a niche market!
Among the most significant educational charities are, of course, the great independent schools, who, it could be argued, often do not serve the public in such a way as to justify their charitable status. It must, however, be pointed out that there are some bursaries provided by private institutions which perhaps deserve more attention than they actually receive. Our own school, Ashbourne College, offers generous (including full) Drama and Music scholarships to talented students. Although listings of music scholarships are available, for example, from Rhinegold Publishing, we are sometimes a little surprised as to how difficult it is to publicize these awards through other channels. Certainly educational charities, and community and church groups, often show little interest, whether or not they have the expressed aim of helping talented young people to excel.
This is perhaps not so much an institutional failure as a simple function of human nature, its reluctance to think laterally or ‘out of the box’. Many charities do not support A Level students in independent schools, whatever their subjects, and therefore they find it hard to conceive that their own potential beneficiaries could actually benefit from such awards in addition to whatever help the charities themselves can give.
Information is, of course, key to success in our highly competitive society. A network of charities could provide a useful service by facilitating the exchange of news and information, at very little extra cost to any of the organizations involved. It is to be regretted that at present this does not really happen. Fortunately, other media, such as the one of which this article is taking advantage, can fill in the gaps left by more traditional forms of communication.