Lauriston Lights is a charity in its second year of running, currently directed by recently graduated Derwenters, Adam Seldon and Hayley Carr; as well as Cambridge alumna, Jess Clark Jones. Their hard work and well attuned sense of social justice manifested itself in a two week long summer camp in the London Borough of Newham. The scheme targets bright 11 year-olds from low-income, challenging backgrounds who have the potential to achieve fantastic things, but run the risk of getting “lost in the system” of secondary school. Coming from a similar East London background to a lot of the children, this was an aim that resonated very loudly with me. It doesn’t take a bleeding heart Guardianista to know that kids whose parents don’t earn a lot of money are much less likely to attend university further down the line. Of course there are myriad reasons for social inequality in education, but that’s not the point of this article; the point is outlining the impact that Lauriston Lights has had and can continue to have.
This year, Lauriston Lights organised a summer camp for around 35 gifted and talented children who had just finished primary school in Newham. The day camp provided the 11 year-olds with some really simple things that most people who have made it as far as university take for granted; for example, an adult who will sit down and listen to them earnestly. Children were paired up with one of about 20 mentors; typically a student or recent graduate from a leading university who had volunteered for the scheme, such as myself. Given the Yorkist roots of the charity, the mainstay of the staffroom was from York and indeed Derwent, although students from slightly further afield had also been enticed. Our daily timetable was apportioned with military rigour and precision to also fit in regular debating sessions, academic and character workshops planned and run by the mentors, sports sessions and external speakers and groups coming in to do work. The schedule was further underpinned by Philosophy for Children (P4C) classes that we received training to facilitate. These involve the presentation of stimuli to the children, who in turn formulate an appropriate, broader philosophical question to discuss independently, with mentors taking a hands-off approach and gently steering the discussion in stimulating directions.
Lauriston Lights was an overwhelmingly positive experience for the children (and mentors, I hasten to add!). A firm and sincere attachment was built between the mentors and their mentees, which acted as a conduit for support, education and inspiration. Language transformed in the fortnight from “if I were to go to university” to “when I go to university”, and arguably it is that readjustment of thinking and planning that can breed success. Wholeheartedly accepting the risk of sounding overly platitudinous, the work done by the founders and directors of Lauriston Lights cannot be undervalued. The charity has forged something that has left an indelible mark on the memory of 30-odd 11 year-olds as they became more articulate, confident, independently minded, critical and ambitious. Admittedly, having aims like the invocation of ambition and the provision of support can sound a little impalpable and airy-fairy, but things like aspirations, dreams, confidence and intellectual expansion are intangible, sort of ethereal concepts in themselves, or at least rather difficult to quantify.
As I look back on this article, I realise that the message it attempts to impart is not particularly profound. Actually, the gist of this article is really simple: I am trying to implore people to support a decent cause. The charity is attempting to expand and open further camps, as well as broadening its brand and creating an even more effective and memorable experience for its 11 year-old graduates. It essentially needs two things for this: people and money. I appreciate how the latter might be in short supply among this article’s readership, but I am confident that opportunities will arise in the near future to volunteer, and I could not endorse this experience enough.
If there is one thing that surprised me about the camp, it is that my enthusiasm to traverse the perils of the DLR to Beckton at 8:15 every morning was not fuelled by the self-righteous “fuck social injustice” mantra that aroused my initial interest. Obviously, this was something right up my ideological alley, but what brought me in every day was the children. I think it sounds soppier than it actually is, but working with exuberant 11 year-olds, tanked up on a diet of sugar, carbs and more sugar requires more energy than I had rationed for over the summer. Sometimes, I had to fight the perennial urge to bark “Jesus, can you stop throwing those bloody beanbags around for one moment, please?!”, because they’re just kids having a laugh. But all of a sudden, I’m not an aspirant somebody-or-other pretending to have nuanced world views, nor does my degree or my looming debt particularly matter. The pressures of being a student and trying to carve out your niche in the realm of employment temporarily evaporate when you walk through the school doors. I was engaging with a group of kid on their terms, and there was something really quite liberating and enriching about shedding that pretence and remembering a little bit what it was like being 11.