UOW's Early Start Discovery Space open for business

The man behind a record $7 million private donation to the University of Wollongong says he sets out to donate 10 per cent of his wealth to children’s education causes. 

At UOW on Tuesday to open the sprawling children’s play-and-learn space that has resulted from his donation, Christopher Abbott said he hoped Australia would soon catch up to the United States in philanthropic terms.

‘‘When it comes to charitable donations I limit myself to [causes related to] young children,’’ Mr Abbott told the Mercury. 

‘‘The reason for that is that there are lots of charities that deal with medical situations and...homelessness.

‘‘Education, I think I’m right in saying, gets about 8 per cent, which is tiny. It needs more because it’s the most important.’’

The hands-on Early Start Discovery Space is located inside the university’s new $44million Early Start Building.

A not-for-profit community engagement endeavour, it contains 14 different interactive experiences designed to stimulate the imagination and maximise learning outcomes among children aged under 12.

On Tuesday, 150 children from area schools and pre-schools surged through the entrance after Mr Abbott and a helper cut the ribbon.

The Woollahra grandfather has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to causes over the past 20 years, with Dalwood Homes, an education facility for children with dyslexia and attention hyperactive deficit disorder, the recipient of his first philanthropic dollars in the late 1980s. 

He has also donated to Mission Australia, favouring the charity’s transparency.

‘‘Charity is difficult,  because you never know if a dollar spent is a dollar well spent, and it really is difficult if you are giving away X dollars to know if X dollars have been spent wisely and properly,’’ he said. 

An accountant, he established an investment management firm, Maple-Brown Abbott in the 1980s and built his wealth through venture capital and biotechnology investments.

Mr Abbott credits a chance meeting with Australian educator Geraldine Lack more than 40 years ago with convincing him of the transformative powers of a particular brand of education.

Ms Lack took over as headmistress of the Rosebery County School for Girls in Surrey, England in 1946, when the drop-out rate was high.

She introduced a ‘‘general studies’’ course alongside the traditional curriculum, with no exams and a focus on stimulating thinking and open discussion. 

The school subsequently became the only state institution to crack the top 30 for highest entry to Oxford and Cambridge.

‘‘The thing is, children want to know how to live,’’ Mr Abbott said. ‘‘The school allowed them to work out their own ethics, own morality and [the students] ended up going to Oxford and Cambridge.

‘‘[Ms Lack] was a wonderful woman and I’ve never forgotten her story and it made me believe, as I do today, that you want to let children do what they want to do, to quite a large extent.

‘‘What’s happening here [at the Discovery Space] is, children will do things for themselves. They’ll get a can-do attitude that will develop their creativity and self-confidence.’’

Mr Abbott took his ideas to UOW’s former vice-chancellor Gerard Sutton and Dean of Education Paul Chandler in November 2009, with ‘‘a meeting of the minds’’. 

The space is based on the children’s museum model popular in the US.

‘‘We’re better than the US because we don’t have exhibits, we have experiences, that’s the centrepiece of what we’re doing.’’