1. ITV Report

Sir James Dyson donates £19 million to his old school in Norfolk

  • Click below to watch a video report by ITV News Anglia's Malcolm Robertson

Sir James Dyson has donated almost 19 million pounds to his former school in Norfolk.

It's to fund a new science, technology, engineering, arts and maths centre at Gresham's in Holt.

It should open in 2021.

Gresham's School Credit: Gresham's School

Our reporter Malcolm Robertson spoke to Sir James about his time at Gresham's and his donation.

  • Born in Cromer in 1947, what are your earliest memories of your childhood in North Norfolk?

Well it’s a wonderful place, it’s got Blakeney Point, Morston, so going for walks on Blakeney Point running up and down the sand dunes, sailing in Blakeney Pitt as it was called then, although we sailed from Morston, which is that very muddy creek and you had to get up at 4 in the morning and go when the tide was up and get back in before the tide disappeared so it was pretty tide released and I lived by the grounds of the school so as I grew up in the summer holidays and winter holidays we played in the grounds of the school and had all the facilities there so what are we had no money in my father died when I was very young, it was a pretty idyllic childhood.

– Sir James Dyson
Sir James Dyson donates £19 million to his old school Credit: ITV Anglia
  • Your father was a teacher at Gresham’s and would have died shortly after you started, what impact did that have on a very young boy at the time?

I guess I felt alone, and it made me very independent I think. It shouldn't have done, but it does. I felt I Was Alone against the world and in a curious way I felt very different because this is long before lots of people got divorced so it was pretty unusual to be at a boarding school not have a father so I felt different. In a curious why I think it made me want to be different, had a reverse reaction.

– Sir James Dyson
  • How did you go about being different, how did you, in those months of grief, deal with it?

I don’t think I was trying to be different in the months of grief, but afterwards I think I rather enjoyed going my own way, doing something different, so I took up long distance running which was very nice when you’re at boarding school because you can get out in the early morning and late at night and go running and enjoy tremendous sense of freedom, and Norfolk is very good place to do that because we had the Holt Lowes, and I could run on and I could run down to Cley or Weybourne along the country lanes and feel that I wasn't trapped inside of school. Not that at Gresham's you feel trapped, because they have huge grounds, but it enabled me to get out and be independent.

– Sir James Dyson
  • And I suppose there was the fear you might have to leave Gresham’s because of you father’s death?

That never actually occurred to me, Logie Burce-Lockhart, the Headmaster, offered my brother and myself, scholarships to stay on, and board, which is rather an odd thing after my father died to send me away to board, and in those days there were no half terms, it was 12 to 14 weeks and you're allowed out three Sundays during a term of 14 weeks so that was a tough thing to happen I think.

– Sir James Dyson
  • And I suppose you always felt that you owe Gresham’s and Logie a debt of gratitude?

I’m extremely grateful to Gresham’s for all sorts of things, providing my brother and myself with a free education, but also it was a non pressurized school, we weren’t particularly pressurised, we were encouraged to be individuals, and Logie said to me in his letter when I left, the academic side wasn’t the be all and end all of the school, it probably is more so nowadays because there's so much pressure to pass exams, but there was much less pressure in my age so I was able to enjoy all the things the school did from being in plays, playing every type of sport, being in the orchestra, being in quartets and quintets because I played the bassoon. I took up the bassoon because I want to be different, and I didn't even know what it was when I raised my hand and said I wanted to learn it. So I think I enjoyed everything at the school almost, bar the academic side so I wasn't a really good pupil.

– Sir James Dyson
  • So it allowed you to be yourself really?

Yes, to become something, I didn’t know what at the time and I did Art so yes it’s a slightly corny thing to say it but Gresham's allows people to be themselves and to be very rounded individuals and of course it's very successful on the academic side, it produced Christopher Cockerell the inventor of the hovercraft, and more recently Henry Snaith who has invented a new type of solar panel, so it produces great scientists, great actors, poets, musicians, so it produces every type of person I think so that's a great record.

– Sir James Dyson
  • So tell us how you’d like to help the school in return for their generosity to you?

I’m on a personal mission to try and increase the number of engineers and scientists in the UK because we desperately short of them and now it's not just a question of producing the same numbers as we have historically because to develop technology you need about five times as many engineers as you needed 20 years ago. So it's everything software to robotics, artificial intelligence, the science is spreading into so many different fields. So I’m on a mission to try and make science and engineering exciting to young children, we’ve worked with schools for about the last 25 years trying to encourage people to take up engineering through the designer technology program and when Douglas Robb suggested to me that Gresham’s would like to be a specialist school in science and stem subjects it seemed a very natural thing to do to build a wonderful building, with a wonderful architecture, in which Gresham’s could specialise and attract people who wanted to be mathematics science and engineering and even design technology.

– Sir James Dyson
  • And this will be up and running in 2021?

I hope so, it would be very nice if the project was on time.

– Sir James Dyson
  • How do you see it working?

We would like to work with it as well because we have an enormous breadth of engineering subjects at Dyson engineering research so we’d like to come and show some of what we’re doing in the school, particularly in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence and battery development, but also we’ll have design and art in the same building and historically there’s been this great divide between art and science and engineering, which is a pity because in many ways I think they are related. I started off doing art and became a designer and then became an engineer and the two mix very well, we’ve got to develop technology though science and engineering but we’ve also got to consider the whole product, whether it’s a beautiful product to use, a beautiful product to look at, and whether it works well. So it’s a rounded thing and I think it’s very good that design and art is part of science and technology

– Sir James Dyson
  • I remember you saying you pretty much stumbled into engineering that was a pretty luck stumble really wasn’t it?

I was very lucky, I was at the Royal College of Art just along there which is right next to Imperial College all founded by Prince Albert, and I took full advantage of that and started to go into Imperial College and see what was going on there, and by the time I left the Royal College of Art, which is really a design college, I was a designer and an amateur engineer and I went to work for an engineering company to learn and how to do research and development.

– Sir James Dyson
  • Do you think we do enough to encourage in schools? So engineering and technology and entrepreneurs?

Well no of course I don’t think we do enough we are not producing enough, and interestingly of course it’s a very very well paid profession now, and it will become even more highly paid, you know a qualified software designer can earn 100,000 a year, I mean it’s incredibly sort after Google and Apple come over to Britain and pouch them. But I don’t think it’s seen as being a very interesting subject and it’s quite difficult to understand why it’s interesting. It’s interesting when you develop technology and develop a product that exploits the technology and that works better than anything that is done before and breaks new ground is an invention, that’s very very exciting but it’s very difficult to explain that to someone if they have never been involved in it. I certainly didn’t understand it at all when I was in Norfolk cause I did, well I did classics, I didn’t know an engineer, I didn’t know engineering existed, it’s only when I discovered it first hand, and started developing technology to develop a product that I got hooked and discovered what an exciting and fulfilling profession engineering is

– Sir James Dyson
  • So how do we change that perception do you think?

Well I think we can start in schools and that’s what we’ve been doing, we’ve been working with a group of schools in Bath to make the design and technology course relevant and exciting and we’ve had great success, we’ve multiplied the number of people taking design and technology by two and a half and we’ve got it gender neutral so we’ve got just as many girls doing it as boys doing it and indeed that the Dyson School of Engineering at Imperial College we have 50% female and 50% male, the national average is about 12 - 15%. So by making the engineering relevant and making it about developing products rather than a dry academic subject we made it relevant and it’s particularly relevant nowadays because it will solve the issues of global warming, shortage of power, shortage of water and all these sort of things, its engineers and scientists who are going to solve these issues. So we need them and it’s a very fulfilling profession.

– Sir James Dyson
  • But in twenty years time will we be doing enough to keep them and encourage those ideas and sort of inspire the entrepreneurs of the future?

Well I hope so and I think the science, STEM building progression is a good step forward and we hope that it will become a beacon for other schools to make it relevant and exciting and to team it up with design and art, I hope we make it relevant and exciting if we can do the right things in the building, robotics, artificial intelligence all these sort of things that it will start to develop in new battery technology that kind of thing all these are problems that need to be solved quickly.

– Sir James Dyson
  • You’ve obviously got a very good reason for choosing Gresham's, but what would you say to those who perhaps would say that it’s a privileged school, that perhaps you should be investing in state education rather than a private school like Greshams?

Well up until now I have invested in state education, to the tune of about £100 million. We send out lots of loan boxes to schools, and Engineers to visit schools and do masterclasses so all our efforts upwards of the last 25 years have been with state schools, and there’s nothing wrong with private schools - people, you know, save up a lot of money and spend everything they have on educating their children, and saving the state a great deal of money. So I think there’s always a place for independent education - independent thinking in education - and for people who want to make that choice for their children. And I know Gresham's has about £3 million worth of scholarships a year - and I was fortunate enough to go there under a scholarship - so I think it’s only right that I should give something back to the school that provided me with a wonderful education.

– Sir James Dyson
  • I was talking to somebody who’s been to Gresham's more recently than you, and was saying that the technology centre there… they described it as “scruff shacks”... is that a term that was used when you were there?

That’s a very old term! Yes, that was the description of the wood working shed, I don’t think it was the description of the design and technology department - which I think is very good - but it was the description of the old wood shed. But that’s what we’re knocking down, and that’s actually where our new building is going to be.

– Sir James Dyson
  • So, we began in North Norfolk; let’s finish in North Norfolk. Do you still go up there now? Do you have any ties up there?

Well, Gresham's, I’m an honorary governor at Gresham's, so that’s about the only reason I go up there now, but I’m travelling an awful lot internationally. I’d love to go there more, I’ve got childhood friends up there. Maybe this will make go there more, so it’s another good reason for doing it.

– Sir James Dyson
  • And I guess Logie Bruce-Lockhart has been quite an inspiration and a great friend to you?

Yeah, he is. When I was at school, he was a great headmaster. As a family friend, he was enormously generous. He had me to stay when my mother went up to see my father in hospital in London. I went to see him the other day, actually...96, and he’s remarkable - a remarkable man. Very cultured, a great artist, and a good writer.

– Sir James Dyson