Hayley came to me last autumn with the idea of setting up a summer camp for children from deprived backgrounds. I nodded enthusiastically at her proposal but was frankly sceptical. Jess, co-founder of the camp, points out that students are eager to hatch lofty plans whilst nursing a drink but less inclined to see them through.
Fortunately, Hayley and Jess were not ones to be perturbed by the difficulties of setting up a summer camp in London's most crime-ridden borough, Newham. The aim of the camp, called Lauriston Lights, was to raise the hope and expectations of bright children who come from homes that might be lacking in aspiration. Eleven, the transition between primary and secondary school, was the age chosen. Hayley and Jess both went to a primary school called Lauriston; while they are now flourishing at university, many of their peers who attended Lauriston with them face serious difficulties, some even in prison. They wanted a camp that would empower kids to help them overcome adversity in their secondary school so that they could realise their potential and not fall down.
The whole thing was unprecedented it that it was run solely by university volunteers whilst using innovative teaching methods like Philosophy for Children. The volunteers' sole formal training was in how to run these Philosophy for Children sessions. But the kids did all the hard work. They came up with the baffling philosophical conundrums. 'Does originality matter?' or 'Is there life after death?' There was particular satisfaction when one boy, Tyrone, perfectly explained the moral quandary of the lesser of two evils.
A rare low moment over the two weeks was ringing around those parents that had signed their child up to the camp, but didn't send them along. Over ten children never turned up. On the phone, these parents would come out with all sorts of excuses and explanations. If the parents can't even manage to send their child to a summer camp, what future prospects do their children have? Still, we're proud of the fact that of the thirty-five who attended, not one child dropped out. At the end of the first day, one mother came up to me and asked if her niece could join the camp.
We were fortunate enough to have external organisations come in and run workshops, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, where the kids enacted Macbeth. One day, five barristers and a QC ran a mock trial. The barristers were the witnesses and the accused, whilst the children were the judges, barristers and solicitors, clad in robe and wig. The parent of one of the kids watched the trial, and when she saw her son Parras in barrister attire, she wept with pride.
We wanted to get the kids to see that if they have the drive and the determination, they can do whatever they want to do. A day trip to Oxford would provide a vivid insight of what was possible. We visited various colleges and libraries, and each child got to select a book from Blackwell's. As well as empowering the kids, we encouraged them to reciprocate, to be 'lights' in their own community. One boy on the way back from the Oxford trip asked Hayley if they could come back next year and be 'mentor assistants.'
We're already thinking about next year. We want this first camp to be a template, to encourage other students to set up a Lauriston Lights camp over their summer holidays. Jess had the last word with the kids, calling on them all to 'go out and change the world.' Perhaps a tiresome sentiment. But not as tiresome as the persistent fact that a child's socio-economic background is still the main determinant of their future.