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Alumnus Sir Peter Gershon (U66) first heard about Churchill College when he was interviewed by his Headmaster at Reigate Grammar School, which was then a publicly funded school. The school had a track record of sending 6–8 boys to Oxbridge every year, and would identify potential candidates in the Upper Sixth.
Peter recalls being rather surprised when the Headmaster asked if he’d considered Oxbridge – no one in his family had ever been to a UK University, let alone Cambridge. His mother was Austrian and went to Vienna University, but was not able to conclude her degree course because of the war. However, the Headmaster commented that he had recently attended a conference at a brand new College being built in Cambridge called Churchill and this was where Peter should apply. Peter duly did as he was told and the decision to apply to Churchill, where he was accepted to study Mathematics in 1966, proved to be the ideal choice.
Churchill was full of people like me, who had been to state grammar schools. I had some school friends who went to traditional Colleges where grammar school kids were in a very small minority and found it quite difficult, whereas there weren’t those sorts of issues at Churchill.
Peter went on to spend a very enjoyable three years at Churchill. He recalls playing a great deal of squash and chairing the Socratic Society and in his final year he met his future wife Eileen, who was then a trainee nurse at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.
On graduating he joined the UK computer industry and went on to develop an extraordinary career as a business leader and a civil servant. Although he didn’t use any of the mathematics he studied at Cambridge in his subsequent career, maths provided him with an invaluable training of the mind, equipping him with a toolset that enabled him to deal with complex situations in his business life. He is currently Chairman of National Grid and also chairs the Aircraft Carrier and Dreadnought Submarine Alliances. He is chiefly known for conducting the Gershon Review in 2003/4 which recommended savings across the UK’s public services and for being an advisor to the Conservative Party during the run up to the 2010 General Election. He has also been Chief Executive of the Office of Government Commerce as well as sitting on the boards of several well known companies and organisations.
Peter is also a trustee of a charity called the Sutton Trust. The Trust, which was set up by someone he was at school with, works in a variety of different ways to improve social mobility through education. Peter is a passionate believer in social mobility and the power of education, which goes hand in hand with his strong belief that talented young people should not be prevented from realising their potential because of their family’s financial circumstances.
Education is a very powerful tool for improving social mobility, the absence of which I regard as one of the great scourges of modern society. All the data indicates that social mobility has got worse over time and not better. I was lucky enough to live in an age with state grammars, when access to state grammar schools was free and there were no student loans. That is not the same today. My parents could not have afforded to send me to private school and they could not have afforded to send me to University without a government grant and without that I would have ended up in a very different place to where I am today.
It was for these reasons that Peter recently decided to make a 5-year pledge in support of Churchill College’s new initiative to support its neediest students – the 1960 Club. Named after the year of the College’s foundation, the 1960 Club is open to all those who choose to make an annual gift of £1,960 (excluding gift aid) in support of the Winston Churchill Top-Up Bursary Fund. The idea for the 1960 Club was inspired by Peter whose old school – which is no longer state funded – runs an initiative along similar lines. The Reigate Grammar School scheme now has nearly 100 members and supports 11 students who are either able to have their fees fully paid or partially supported.
Churchill has traditionally had one of the highest proportions of undergraduate entrants from the state sector amongst Oxbridge colleges and has historically excelled in student bursary provision. Over 100 undergraduates currently receive a means-tested Cambridge Bursary and students in the greatest need also receive a top-up bursary of £2,000 mostly funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (WCMT).
The College is distinctive in having an unusually high number of undergraduates from very financially disadvantaged backgrounds. The top-up bursaries provide relief from the pressure of immediately having to find work in the holidays to pay rent to their parents or allow them to stay in College to study. Contrary to other institutions, students from this group excel at Churchill — a College that has been placed 5th/29 across the last decade in the Tompkins Table. We attribute our success to the very close individual support we offer to students and to the top-up bursary funding of £2,000 a year they are receiving. As a matter of urgent priority we would like to continue to fund the top-up bursaries as the funding previously received from the WCMT for this initiative is now ending. This is why we have set up the Winston Churchill Top-Up Bursary Fund.
The ambition of Churchill’s Senior Tutor Richard Partington is to fund 10 top-up bursaries a year; ‘If we can fund 10 a year, we will be able to provide top-up bursaries to the poorest 10% of our intake’. All those who join the 1960 Club will help ensure we can meet this ambition but we warmly welcome any level of gift in support of the new Winston Churchill Top-Up Bursary Fund to help ensure we can continue this story of success for our neediest students.