When Peter Bull stood up in an assembly at St Francis Xavier College 10 years ago to say that there would be a push to get more of the students into Oxford and Cambridge Universities, he was laughed at.
"As with many inner city sixth form colleges, aspirations were really low," says Bull, who is head of faculty and admissions manager for the London sixth form college. "But our vice-principal was appointed as a specialist member of staff to work on Oxford and Cambridge applications and he has put every effort into making contacts with these universities, as well as helping students with the application forms and interview techniques.
"Since then, we've got 42 students into these universities and many more into other prestigious universities such as University College London and London School of Economics. We've got to the point where students tell us they want to come here because they want to get into a top university."
Colleges are increasingly going the extra mile to support students. For some, like St Frances Xavier College, the support is practical. For others, it is financial – providing a fund to help students buy a chair and desk, for instance, or to help pay for childcare. And while some colleges focus their support at particular groups of students such as those with learning difficulties or care leavers, others make it available to all.
The aim may be overturning low retention rates or it may be about helping students get the most out of work experience or other extra-curricular activities so that they maximize career opportunities. It may be about confidence building and raising aspirations or it may simply be about ensuring students feel their very individual needs are catered for and ultimately that the college cares about them.
As well as having a nursery on site, Greenwich Community College in south-east London ensures that courses with a high number of parents are timetabled so students can pick up their children from school without having to miss lectures.
"We make sure our lessons are flexible, as we know our students have other commitments and we take this into account when planning the timetable," says Alec Brand, the college's head of marketing. They also ensure that the nursery is open at other times when students may need it, such as during the enrollment process – which can take several hours. "We've definitely found that this helps with the retention of students," says Brand.
Meanwhile, Canterbury College in Kent is one of a growing number of colleges benefiting from schemes set up by outside organisations. In this case, Aimhigher Kent & Medway (a Government scheme to help more people get into higher education) teamed up with Sixteen Plus (the Kent Leaving Care Service) to designate a member of staff for young people in care and care leavers at every local university and college. As Canterbury College's designated person, Kay O'Connell provides help with life skills ranging from budgeting to cooking. "Just 1 per cent of young people in care currently progress to higher education, so this is a really important scheme," she says.
O'Connell helps students with anything from filling in Ucas forms to finding the right course for them at the college. "There are some students that really benefit from me helping them with accommodation, while others – who don't have a landline and their phone doesn't always have credit – just benefit from using the phone here."
Crystal Sevier, 21, has been in care since she was two and is studying an HND in tourist management at Canterbury College. "If I'm upset, I can go and chat to Kay at anytime. My social worker was based in London, so that is important to me."
At Leeds College of Technology, two student guidance advisers have set up an initiative which involves gathering old or unwanted bicycles to donate to asylum seekers and other students who may not have access to financial support.
And at Taunton's College, a sixth form college in Southampton, there is an emphasis on providing a good café that serves food all day round, including breakfast. Principal John Prest points out that 46 per cent of their students receive Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA). "I mention that because it's a pretty good measure of the level of disadvantage in the area," he says.
To this end, Taunton's College also provides appropriate study spaces and facilities. "A lot of our students don't have good support in their homes for independent study. We also try to provide study support – for instance, around time management, note-taking in lectures and or structuring essays," says Prest. "We even provide anger management for students with behavioral difficulties and we have also had Relate counsellors come in to support students."
Students themselves are often the best source of support, says Prest. "We have people we call ambassadors and mentors to work with students who, for one reason or another, are finding life difficult. There are others who have gone onto good universities who come back to support our students in their particular study area and encourage them to go onto higher education where appropriate."
There is a great deal of help on offer to all college students – whether through the careers service or through government funding schemes, points out Prest. "But many colleges add on to this, which students definitely appreciate."
At Thames Valley University, learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities are a focus of support. "We have very small classes and we offer courses such as our work preparation course for students from 16 to 19, where they spend three days a week in college and two out in the workplace. At the moment, we have 150 placements running – ranging from an undertakers to horse riding stables to retail to students working on campus," says Bethan Webster, work experience team leader.
When it comes to financial help, growing numbers of colleges now provide bursaries and awards for students who demonstrate excellence in their field. One of these is The Sixth Form College, Solihull which set up the Roy Heartfield Scholarship in memory of a former teacher at the college, who died in post in 1992. The scheme enables the winner, chosen by the best performance at a specially held concert, to pay for a set of music lessons with an eminent performer of their choice. Last year's winner was Kieran Cameron, then aged 16, who used the scholarship to fund specialist tuition on the clarinet.
Swansea College also offers bursaries to talented students. One of these is in partnership with The Swansea Art Society. They offer one art and design student a bursary of £500, and as well as financial support the winning student gets help with access to equipment and a chance to display their work.
"We are very keen to make contact with artists at the start of their careers and to encourage and nurture their talents in any way we can," says Barbara Bevan, Chairperson of the Swansea Art Society, and with support like this from colleges students will find their careers getting the best possible start.
Profile Park Lane College, Leeds
"We were a bit concerned about the retention and achievement rate of our students doing foundation degrees as we had high numbers of people enrolling but quite a drop off once the courses started," says Kathy Sharpe, marketing and PR officer at Park Lane College Leeds.
In an attempt to overcome the problem, the college implemented a plan in July 2006 with the help of money from the European Social Fund to employ two case workers specifically to help these students. The result is the Firm Foundation project.
"The people we get on our foundation degrees tend to have more complex lives than the average university student," explains Sharpe. "We get a complete mix from local students who don't want to travel too far to students who come to the college because they need extra support and need some one to one time, and also mature students coming back into education."
The case workers offer the students support in any capacity necessary including learning support, welfare advice and financial advice. They get involved with the students from the start of the academic year, helping with enrolment and induction in order to spot any potential issues early on. This year they also took 120 students on a funded outwards bounds trip to Otley Chevin Forest to help foundation degree students make friends with people across departments.