A taste of economics on a Saturday morning

The LSE has set up a scheme to attract more state school pupils. Lucy Hodges joined the first batch of students for their induction session at the nation's premier institution for social sciences
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Sixteen-year-old Shalini Arora is quite clear why she is giving up a quarter of her weekend to attend the novel Saturday school at the London School of Economics, thought to be the first of its kind in the country. "I want to improve my maths," she says, oozing ambition.

Many of the other eager sixth-formers are similarly motivated. For them the LSE is a Mecca. They are being invited into an unfamiliar but exciting world to be given the chance to acquire good A-level grades, and therefore to aim higher than they might otherwise. Many are hoping that the Saturday school - taking place over two hours on Saturday mornings - will give them an entree into one of the foremost social science universities in the world.

Fiona Otchere, another 16-year-old, from St Angela's and St Bonaventure's sixth-form centre in Newham, east London, is being predicted by her teachers to get a C and a D at A-level. She is confident that the LSE will help her to do better than that, and is even thinking of applying to study here for a degree.

All 55 young people have been chosen because they are the kind of students who would not normally apply to the school. The scheme is being targeted at sixth-formers in schools in three London boroughs which have poor rates of university entrance. It is aimed not at the high-flyers, but at those being predicted to get Cs at A-level. The idea is to give a leg up to people who are intelligent and are underperforming, and whose parents did not go to university themselves. The aim is to give them extra help so they will do better, become more ambitious and, maybe, apply to the LSE.

Like many other "old" universities, the school attracts large numbers of independent school applicants: 36 per cent of students are from private schools. It would like to increase the proportion of state school students applying and getting in. But the academic requirements are high; you need a minimum of three Bs, sometimes an A and two Bs at A-level.

"We would like more students of this type at the LSE, but it's up to them if they choose to come here," says Hazel Pennell, of the LSE's Centre for Educational Research.

Under its new director, Tony Giddens, who is a Tony Blair soulmate, the LSE is keen to make connections with London state schools, and to make the school more accessible to ordinary Londoners. The Saturday school intake in the first year is drawn from the sixth forms of five state schools in Barking and Dagenham, Newham and Wandsworth. Many more applied than were chosen by their teachers, so a waiting list has had to be drawn up.

"Schools have been really keen; tutors have identified far more students than they were offered places for; the students really want to come here," according to Dr Anne West, director of research at the LSE's Centre for Educational Research. "We were really encouraged by the level of interest."

Subjects being offered for study on Saturdays are ones in which the LSE is strong, or which it regards as important: maths, sociology and history. Maths is important for a social science subject such as economics, and is generally seen as highly desirable. Students will be taught by A- level teachers - those already teaching in the schools involved - as well as by some LSE lecturers.

It is likely to be different from school teaching, explains Dr West. They may be taught to a slightly different level, or in a slightly different way. They will also learn how to use the LSE's famous library and IT facilities and, it is hoped, will learn to become independent, motivated learners. "That is important for A-levels," adds Dr West. "It is even more crucial once you get to university."

The sixth formers will also be given help filling in UCAS forms for entry to university, and in how to perform in an interview. At least one session is being planned to discuss the process of applying to university, and how to write a personal statement for the UCAS form to impress admissions tutors.

The pilot programme is being run for a year, at a cost of more than pounds 40,000. It is funded by an anonymous donor, an LSE alumnus who would never have got to the school if it had not been for an encouraging teacher. He has links with Barking and Dagenham (hence the emphasis on that area) and may also fund some scholarships for students from low-income families in that area which could be tied in to the Saturday school. The students are being paid pounds 3 an hour to compensate for loss of Saturday job earnings. Their travel expenses are also being refunded.

Some of the sixth-formers who turned up for the preliminary session at the school last month were thrilled by the money they would be making. Anjum Razaq, 17, however, a lower-sixth-former at Barking Abbey comprehensive, will be losing out, because his Saturday job paid him pounds 35 a week. But he isn't too perturbed. "I've still got my pounds 30 a week paper round," he says.

For him, the Saturday school is a great opportunity to extend his learning and broaden his horizons. With predictions of three Cs, he is just the sort of candidate the LSE is seeking. He would like to study law or anthropology at university and has his eye on Queen Mary and Westfield - or the LSE. His parents (his father is retired and his mother is a housewife) are keen for him to go to university.

Sitting next to him is Ranu Begum, also at Barking Abbey, who has her sights set on a degree in law or business studies. A high-flyer (so perhaps not quite the sort of student the LSE had in mind), she is predicted to achieve two As and a B at A-level and wants to study either law or business studies at university. Her chosen destinations are Cambridge or the LSE. "The Saturday school sounds interesting, and will look impressive on my record of achievement - which will help me get into university," she says.