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  1. Impact Philanthropy
July 6, 2011

Firm Foundation

By Spear's

Zain Alatas hears from Sir John Sorrell, whose foundation encourages young people to get involved in design projects, and Sophie Schorah, who was inspired as a schoolgirl by one of those enterprises
My wife Frances and I set up the Sorrell foundation eleven years ago. We had run a design business for 25 years and had become increasingly interested in the role of design in education.

When we set up the foundation, our basic model was to try to engage young people in a new way. Instead of asking the pupils to design things, we asked them to create a brief for something that would improve the quality of life in their school. We then appointed designers who worked on a pro bono basis.

In Falmouth the students’ brief for their new DT block produced such a successful design that they secured funding and the block was built. In Kentish Town, pupils came up with a new design for their canteen. Adults so often do not listen to young people, but after all they are the consumers, critics and clients of design. In schools, they know what the issues are.

Two years ago, we set up the National Art and Design Saturday Clubs. We now have fourteen colleges that open their doors on 30 Saturdays a year. As Frances says, the idea is to give the students ‘a look in the kitchen’ of this world of art and design to see if they want to pursue it further.

All the people involved are giving their time voluntarily, and we act as the catalyst: we set it all up and we bring everyone together. This way, we hope to create a model that is scalable and self-sustaining: three years from now we aim to have 40 schools serving 2,000 students.

Without a doubt it is the best thing we have ever done. We have been able to apply all our knowledge and experience to this, and we remain heavily involved. Frances even writes the copy for our exhibitions. And of course it is hugely rewarding if you know that just one person’s life has changed as a result of our work.
Sir John and Lady Sorrell, photography by Graham Carlow

I first got involved with the foundation’s ‘Joinedupdesignforschools’ project, where they went into schools and asked the children what they wanted to change about their school. Previous groups had done things like change their uniform or graphic design projects, but we decided that we wanted to change our entire design and technology block.

The foundation hired a team of architects to come and work with us, and we were made to feel like the clients: we told them what we wanted and they went away and designed it for us. Whenever the architects came down we would get together, brainstorm ideas and come up with mood boards for the new block. Everyone got really involved.

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Another student and I were then given the opportunity to present the designs for our new building at the V&A. I think we realised that it was pretty unusual for two fifteen-year-olds to have the opportunity to present to a conference room full of people, but I certainly benefited from the early practice. As a result of the presentation we managed to secure half the funding for the building.

They completed the project in October 2008, and it’s brilliant. The original design brief was all our own, and it was fantastic to see the design through from start to finish.

The project had a huge effect on me. I didn’t know a lot about architecture before then, but it got me thinking about it and inspired me to study further. It gave me opportunities that otherwise I would not have had. I am now in my third year of civil and structural engineering at Cambridge.

I first met Frances and John when I was starting the project and they have stayed in touch with me since; Frances helped me to get a summer work placement with a successful female engineer a few years ago. The amount of effort that they put in on top of the work of the foundation is really striking.

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