THE epitome of modern philanthropy is Scots-born Andrew Carnegie, who used the vast fortune he amassed in the 19th-century American steel industry to fund an array of projects aimed at social and educational advancement.
His $350 million largesse was remarkable because it was driven by the notion that education was life's key purpose and that access to information through the network of public libraries he funded was the most important driver to help others help themselves. But this egalitarian attitude did not mean there were no strings attached to his giving. The fact Carnegie lived at a time when a man of his wealth could do virtually what he pleased with his money gave him a freedom to shape the public projects he funded that does not exist today.
The influence of those who wish to donate to educational projects is under discussion because the Scottish Government has commissioned an academic paper to examine the greater use of money donated by philanthropists to help develop the country's most talented pupils. In a thought-provoking and thorough work, Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education at Edinburgh University, explores the potential for donors of large sums of money to fund particular schemes directly.
There are ready examples in the recent history of Scottish education which highlight the potential for friction between the state and the private individual - even in successful projects. While undoubtedly doing remarkable work to foster leadership skills in secondary pupils, there are those who have questioned whether the target-setting approach of the Hunter Foundation, backed by Sir Tom Hunter, entirely suits the ethos of state secondary schools.
Another example is that of businessman Lord Irvine Laidlaw, who held discussions with the former Scottish Executive in 2005 about giving some of his £770 million personal fortune to comprehensive schools. Lord Laidlaw wanted to adopt the City Academy model pioneered by Tony Blair in England, but his offer was rejected because Scottish ministers disagreed with handing donors any control over state schools. Eventually, Lord Laidlaw went south with his money, pouring millions into a new City Academy in Newcastle.
Another aspect of Prof Paterson's paper throws up an even more challenging question. He suggests the setting up of a National Lottery-style fund for smaller donations to which state and private schools could bid for bursaries on behalf of pupils who have excelled in disciplines ranging from music, dance and sport to languages, mathematics, science, writing and leadership. Prof Paterson believes the model would reinstate the reputation of Scottish education as a fosterer of "true individual excellence" alongside its existing strength of providing "opportunities for everyone". But even if such a system could be equitably managed, until Scotland tackles the chronic underachievement of thousands of pupils from more deprived backgrounds who have been starved of opportunity since birth, there will always be doubts over the logic of providing extra help to those who have benefited most from their education.
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