THE GIVER AND THE GIFT: Hackney Empire
Entrepreneur Jack Petchey describes how his foundation created an academy school in East London, where Elizabeth Falade is one of the students making the most of his support
Jack Petchey Foundation
I was a scout when I was younger, and as a scout you are always taught to ‘give a helping hand’. I’ve been giving since the Fifties, but in 1999 I started the Jack Petchey Foundation. I decided to focus on young people, because you can’t look after everybody in the world and, being commercially minded, I thought — and I’ll be blunt about this — that you get better value for money if you invest in young people.
Lord Levy approached me about funding the Academy. He convinced me that investing in kids in Hackney is a good investment, and it is. I visited the school that was on the site before. It was the filthiest school I’ve ever seen, and less than 25 per cent of students were achieving five A-C grades at GCSE. Now, with the same site, the same school and the same kids but a different ethos, 62 per cent got five A-C grades last year.
I feel proud. It gives me such satisfaction to see people grow up like that — it’s quite emotional. The Academy now looks like a very upmarket school. We’ve got a formal dress code, something I really believe in, and it looks as smart as a public school.
At lunchtime, the students eat in ‘family groups’, so you have young people from across the age span eating together with a teacher. For many of the kids that is a rare experience — they don’t get to just sit down for dinner like that and converse.
I don’t like the term ‘giving money away’, because in a sense that’s a side part of what we do. The charity is more about giving a helping hand. Money does help, of course, but more important is the leadership, enthusiasm and the encouragement. We use letters, certificates and awards schemes to motivate the young people. We send out congratulatory notes to students, and we regularly have young people for lunch as a reward for improvement or good behaviour, so it’s not about only rewarding the highest-performing students. We believe in praise, not kicking. In business or socially, you get much more out of people when you’re kind to them.
At school I had no interest at all — I’ve got none of the classics. I had to go back to school much later in life to learn mathematics, algebra and geometry, and it’s much harder as you get older. I believe in education — I didn’t, but I do now.
Student Principal, Petchey Academy
I have been at the Petchey Academy since it first opened, when I joined year seven. Last year I put myself forward to join the student leadership team. We had to write short speeches and talk in front of the school, and I guess they liked what I had to say, because the students and teachers elected me student principal.
Soon after I started, Jack Petchey came and gave us a speech. He gives a speech to all the new year sevens about why he built the school and his expectations for us. Even when I was eleven, I was shocked that someone who’s invested so much money would still make an effort to come and talk to us. I remember just thinking, ‘Wow, he’s such a nice guy.’ I know that he’s extremely rich, but he’s an everyday guy. He’s really friendly and personable.
I know the school that was here before the Academy had a lot of challenges and students didn’t achieve. I think now the teaching is better, and there’s much more emphasis on the style of teaching. All the students know they have to give 100 per cent. The building is also beautiful, which makes you want to put more effort in.
I think that a lot of children, especially in this area, don’t think they have opportunities. And this school provides them with opportunities — the Petchey Academy has lots of partnerships with universities, hospitals and other professional institutions — but it also gives them hope that you can have big aspirations and achieve them.
I got thirteen GCSEs of grade A-B, and there’s so much I want to achieve, mainly focusing on my A-levels next year. After that I hope to get a degree in art history or anthropology, maybe at Stanford or SOAS or LSE, and then I want to get a masters, a PhD, and eventually become a professor.
I think I always would have worked hard, but I don’t think I would have had as many opportunities at another school. I like to think I would have still got good grades, but I don’t think I would have had as much fun getting the grades, and met so many professionals who have inspired me. And I wouldn’t necessarily have been as excited for what’s to come next.
Read more by Sophie McBain