In 2014 Lambeth resident Miranda Townsend approached the Foundation to find out how to go about setting up a charity in her Will. But what she discovered led to a different outcome. Her wish was to help Lambeth BME (Black Minority Ethnic) students from low income households who gained a place at one of the UK’s Russell Group universities. We interviewed her to find out more about her and her story
Can we begin by asking you about the greatest influences on your life and outlook?
I moved schools eight times before going to university and so experienced very varied educational influences and regimes and widely differing ideas on how to think and behave. By the age of 13 when I was sent to a traditional English boarding school I had travelled a lot, had lived in other countries with different customs and practices and was used to deciding for myself – not necessarily correctly – what I thought was right or wrong. A major issue for me at that age, and the first political issue that I remember taking up with enthusiasm, was apartheid in South Africa. This early education in racism and how it worked has been a major influence throughout my life.
Education is important to you: what, for you, is its purpose?
I was recently travelling in China and was asked to talk to a group of primary teachers. One of the first questions I was asked was, “How do you teach children imagination?’’ The subtext provided, by a rather grumpy young teacher, was that “Chinese children have no imagination.” I personally believe that no-one is born without imagination and that capturing the imagination of students and leading them to apply it in their own pursuit of knowledge is one of the most important purposes of education. Paolo Freire, the great Brazilian teacher of literacy to adults, contrasted the ‘banking’ theory of education in which the banker/ teacher doles out knowledge – facts – with the dialectical method, where teachers and students come together to share their knowledge in a creative dialogue to question and expand on the given facts. Finding ways to do this across the board with students of all ages and abilities is the hugely demanding task we ask of all teachers.
Why your concern for BME pupils from lower income groups?
In the late 1960s I became so concerned about generalised racism in the UK and tales of how it was affecting the education of black children that I abandoned my career job to see how I could influence this. I was in at the beginning with the ILEA’s so-called multicultural education policies, increasingly aware of the facts of how discrimination was affecting BME communities in all areas of life, less aware of what to do about this in practical ways but committed to developing these. The creation of the Townsend Scholarship Fund is a logical progression from this work.
Why Russell Group universities?
I was ILEA Inspector for Adult Education when the ILEA was disbanded and as part of my job I worked closely with the Polytechnics, which were then under Local Authority control but have now all become universities. My knowledge of their offer then, and more recent anecdotal evidence from individual BME students, affected my decision to offer help specifically to students who gained a place at a Russell Group university. A primary consideration was to encourage BME students to aspire to the best without being deterred by material considerations or over-dependent on student loans.
Why were you attracted by the Walcot Foundation?
I have lived, and from time to time worked, in Lambeth for 49 years. I feel deeply rooted here. My plan was to establish a small charity through my Will. I knew of the Walcot Foundation and decided to make contact for any advice about how my new charity could best achieve its aim. What soon became clear to me was that the Foundation was a natural home for what I had in mind. This avoided the costs involved in setting up a new charity and ensured that all of my future gift would be directed to the purpose I so much wished to support. I am delighted to have found such a safe place for my small project. I also enjoy being part of the long history of the Foundation and like the idea of being one of the many Lambeth residents who have contributed to its work. A wholly unexpected bonus of working with the Foundation has been that the relatively small contribution I have made to date has already been enhanced by the Foundation to enable more substantial grants to be made to this year’s beneficiaries.
What do you think are the threats and possibilities facing young people today?
Superficially the possibilities seem wider than they were in the fifties. There are more universities, more girls going to university, more places for women at Oxford and Cambridge, more black and ethnic minorities succeeding in the school system, more material resources on every front, more access to foreign travel and making links with people across the social spectrum and across the world. Against this, however, weigh the huge privilege that a public school education confers, the lack of government support for fees and maintenance, the proliferation of degrees which no longer guarantee access to employment, the lack of skills training and skilled jobs other than in IT. I believe that today the threats to young people – the rising inequality of both wealth and opportunity, the hostile climate that government policy since 2010 has created for the poor and the ‘immigrant’, the reductions in state support for those that need it and Brexit – are real and great. The possibilities will come from young people themselves, their optimism and opposition to the difficulties they face, their willingness to fight for change. I hope current and future governments will start again to value and appreciate the young.
What wisdom and advice might you pass on?
One expression of wisdom which profoundly affected me, though I cannot take it for my own, comes from Malcolm X’s autobiography, from his refusal to give an inch in claiming equality for black people, to accept that difference is not important or to ignore discrimination in working with others for equal rights. I believe that is a lesson that we should continue to listen to and to heed as we hear injunctions to incoming communities to integrate. On a personal level the one clear lesson I remember from school was from my O Level English teacher. She had asked us to write an essay on Wordsworth and I did, enthusiastically mocking his infelicities and often simple phrases. The essay was returned to me unmarked and I was invited to write a second essay on what I liked about Wordsworth. Great teaching! I learnt at a stroke to admire and enjoy Wordsworth and, by the way, but more importantly, a lifelong lesson in seeking out the best rather than merely criticising the worst.