Spotlight: James Lambert - IntoUniversity Chair of Trustees

'We have grown from helping a handful of individuals to a point where we are genuinely changing society for the better’

James was educated at Harrow School and read Law and History of Art at the University of Cambridge. He is a Director of Lisburne Holdings Ltd and is also a Director of Value Retail plc, which develops and operates factory outlet centres including Bicester Village in Oxfordshire.

The IntoUniversity programme began as a local project at the North Kensington centre. By 2006, the co-founders, Rachel Carr and Hugh Rayment-Pickard, knew from the burgeoning numbers and feedback from users that they had an extraordinary project on their hands. The question naturally arose: was this a one-off or could they replicate this success across several centres? They convened a symposium and invited politicians, educationalists and local community members to debate this question. I was – and am – part of the Bicester Village group that has expanded to multiple locations across Europe, so I had a sense of what it is to be part of a growing company and was in favour of expansion.

I went home and had a sleepless night thinking: ‘this is a terrific idea. The educational gap is neither fair nor good for society.  My kids are helped to aspire to go to university and receive all the backing they need whereas, literally a few hundred yards away, in the local authority flats over the road, there will be a child of equal intelligence who doesn’t have this aspiration or opportunity and consequently has a very different life outcome. Any idea that can successfully address this horrible inequality is a fantastic thing.  But what if, like many good ideas, it remains just that? There was no mention of funding for this mooted expansion – what will happen if it just doesn’t get traction?’

The next morning I got up and wrote a cheque. I then called two friends and asked whether they would consider doing the same and those two dear people said yes. So off I went to Sirdar Road and presented Rachel and Hugh with £30,000.

It seemed like a fateful moment. Rachel looked at Hugh, Hugh looked at Rachel. There was a long pause. Then Rachel said, laughing, ‘oh dear, now we really have to do it!’

And from that little acorn, seeing a handful of students, we have in less than ten years grown into this wonderful organisation with 21 centres. This year we will serve more than 21,500 young people.

What has driven and sustained this growth? Firstly and simply it remains a compelling idea. When you tell people that for society’s most disadvantaged cohort only 23% progress to Higher Education they are initially shocked, but when you add that when they have been through our programme that percentage rises to 80% they are then hugely supportive.

The power of the idea has enabled us to raise funding right across the spectrum, from single individuals to huge institutions, such as The Queen’s Trust and Impetus-PEF.

Moreover, we have been able to recruit an incredible team of intelligent and enthusiastic colleagues. Word seems to have got out that we are doing something worthwhile and we interview, on average, 18 graduate scheme applicants for each position. The full-time staff are supported by a corps of over 1,500 wonderful volunteers who give selflessly of their time.

Secondly, the need for what we do remains enormous. While we are now present in seven cities across England, our research shows many more areas with dire university progression rates that would be transformed by one of our centres. Over the next five years, we hope to extend our reach to more young people by opening additional centres and by expanding our programmes to best suit the needs of our students.

There is still much more to do. We have grown from helping a handful of individuals to a point where we are genuinely changing society for the better. Many consider us the most impressive charity driving social mobility in the country.

I went home and had a sleepless night thinking: ‘this is a terrific idea. The educational gap is neither fair nor good for society.'

As Trustees, we work closely with Senior Management to plan the pace of expansion. It is wonderful to be part of a growth story. An organisation that is not growing feels as if it is shrinking. Expansion is inspiring and as well as fundamentally helping more young people, it is attractive to funders who want to see an idea that is succeeding on a meaningful scale. It also creates a great atmosphere among our staff who see that if they succeed there is plenty of space for them to grow into very responsible roles at a young age. However, we Trustees are also very mindful that our expansion must be sustainable. Growth requires financial and management resources and so we try to find the right balance, carefully calibrating the number of centres we open each year so we are going as fast as we can without becoming overstretched.

Looking back, it is hard to believe how much we have grown and achieved in less than ten years. It is a remarkable narrative and we are truly indebted to our founders, our staff, our volunteers and our funders who make it possible for us to pursue this inspiring vision: closing the UK’s opportunity gap through education.

James' article is taken from the latest edition of IntoUniversity's termly newsletter aspire, published in May 2016. To read aspire in full, click here.

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