Patron Q&A: Professor Dame Alison Richard

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Professor Dame Alison Richard, British anthropologist, conservationist and university leader administrator, was the 344th Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Professor Richard was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2010 Birthday Honours and Officier de l’Ordre National in Madagascar in 2005. She has received honorary doctorates from universities in the UK, US, China, Madagascar, Canada and Korea. She has been a Patron of SHINE since 2008.  Professor Richard is passionate about children having the best possible start to their education. We caught up with her to find out more about why she supports SHINE.

When did you first find out about the charity?

Professor Richard: “In 2007, I was talking to SHINE’s co-founder Lord Jim O’Neill about the work Cambridge was doing to help ensure that a greater number of young people from diverse backgrounds could study at the University when he mentioned SHINE. The link was clear between Cambridge’s goals and SHINE’s mission to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children at school, and I was immediately hooked. I had to get involved.”

What made you identify with SHINE’s mission?

“I know just how important it is for children to have the best possible opportunities from the early years of education. If things do not go well during this formative stage, it can have a huge impact on children’s experiences at school, and on subsequent job prospects, health and wellbeing, and more.

“I was delighted when SHINE made the move to the North of England in 2017 and decided to focus part of its work on the early years of education. It is more than time that the playing field in education outcomes between the North and South of England is levelled. I can remember when Gordon Brown made a push to focus on universities in the North. He was right. It is one country, and in the past there has been too great a concentration on some regions at the expense of others.”

What was your relationship like with education as a child?

“I was the first member of my immediate family to attend university. Being supposedly the ‘brainy one’, it was expected of me! My parents took it for granted that education was important, and I am certain their commitment shaped my own enthusiasm for learning. I was always surrounded by books. I don’t remember thinking much about what I would do when I grew up, but for as long as I can remember I know that I assumed I would go to university and have a career.”

When were you first aware of the disadvantages that face some children in education?

“My parents lived simply, to save for private education for my sister, brother and me, and they created a home environment that fostered learning. Looking back, I realize what a huge advantage that was for us children, one that all too many children lack. It is another reason why I support SHINE’s focus on the early years, especially the importance of learning at home. Providing creative, multi-faceted early years programmes that support communications and language development are desperately needed to help children have the best start, whatever their background may be.”

What is your vision for SHINE?

“I would like to see the charity keep going with collaborative efforts to identify the unique needs of disadvantaged children, and with sharing what they learn.

“In a very different context, I gained an understanding of the importance of working collaboratively through a community-based partnership that I helped form in South West Madagascar almost 50 years ago, which continues to this day. We work with village communities and a range of other organisations to understand real needs on the ground, and these needs drive what we do. I am very pleased that SHINE has adopted a similar approach of place-based learning through partnerships with organisations such as Right to Succeed, and I hope these efforts continue because I believe it is the best way to work.”

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