Bridging the class divide

The Government wants universities to form alliances with local sixth forms. Lucy Hodges describes how one of London's top institutions responded
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The Independent Online

Vladislav Savov, 18, is a happy young man this week. An asylum seeker from Bulgaria, he has won a £2,000 award given by University College London to a student entering from City and Islington sixth form college who has done outstandingly well and overcome adversity.

Vladislav came to Britain six years ago with halting English. Within four years he had clocked up 11 good GCSE passes and last summer achieved three A grades at A-level. Now he is studying law at UCL's highly-rated law department and hoping one day to work in a City law firm.

This may be a small step in improving access for disadvantaged youngsters - less dramatic than the £4,000 a year bursaries to be offered by Cambridge, Exeter and Imperial - but it cements the innovative partnership that UCL, one of Britain's leading universities, has formed with an inner-city sixth form college at the prompting of Andrew Adonis, the Prime Minister's Downing Street adviser on education.

Adonis, who lives in Islington, and civil servants at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), approached Professor Michael Worton, a vice provost at UCL. "They had the idea that they would like to put together a world-class research-led university with an inner-city school institution," he explains.

Professor Worton and the former UCL provost Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith attended a meeting at the DfES. Initially the Government was seeking to put university representatives on the governing bodies of inner-city schools. UCL resisted because it didn't want to be responsible for school standards. But it has an observer on the sixth form college's board just as the college has an observer on UCL's board.

"Our notion was to have a living laboratory in which we could examine issues arising in the transition from school to university," says Professor Worton. Universities complain that young people, particularly from state schools, are not well enough prepared for university. The problem is acute in maths, where universities routinely have to lay on remedial classes to compensate for things that young people have not learnt at school. UCL saw this as a great opportunity to examine just what children were being taught in school and how, and whether anything could be done to improve the curriculum and exam system.

Traditionally universities with as glittering a reputation as UCL have not drawn many students from state sixth-form colleges in areas where education is in the doldrums. And they certainly didn't have close relationships with them. But that is changing with the Government's new standards agenda and with the pressure on universities to broaden access. This week City and Islington College had the official opening of a gleaming new campus by the Angel tube station which should help to put the college more firmly on the map.

"One of the key aims of our partnership is to raise aspirations," says Professor Worton.This seems to be working. It led to a 17.5 per cent increase in applications to university in the first year. In 2003, A-level results at City and Islington College were the best ever. The pass rate was 96.5 per cent overall and 100 per cent in 19 subjects. Two young people, both of whom had done their GCSEs at Islington schools, won places to study medicine and both felt that they benefited from the link.

The partnership enables students to attend master classes, lectures and seminars given by UCL academics. They get advice on applying to university and preparing for university life and UCL undergraduates act as mentors to the sixth form college students. Professor Steve Jones, the eminent UCL geneticist, has given lectures to them. Last week the college was plastered with flyers for a talk on "What has chemistry got to do with gene therapy?" by Dr Alethea Tabor.

Students were enthusiastic about the link. Charlie Clarke, 16 in his first year of A-levels, had attended a recent lecture on the morality of private property by the UCL philosopher Jonathan Wolff. "It was more like a university lecture than what you get at school or college," he explained. "And then the professor talked about university and how to get into UCL."

Two girls, Aateka Patel, 17, and Diana Altamirano, 18, both doing biology A-level, had attended a class at the university on DNA. "We extracted our own DNA," said Diana. "We got to see how to do it and understood what it was all about."

For the college staff, the university has created a new MA in academic practice which enables them to become better acquainted with the university and to study the nature of the work in the two institutions. Three signed up for it last year. There are joint staff development and networking opportunities and UCL has two Excellence Fellows from City and Islington financed by the Higher Education Funding Council who are undertaking extended pieces of research.

This is not the only work that UCL undertakes with state schools and colleges, but it is the most detailed. The maths department at the college, for example, has struck up a close relationship with the maths department at UCL and the medical school has put a good deal of effort into encouraging students at the college who are well enough qualified to put in applications for medicine.

Critics of the scheme say that it enables disadvantaged young people to gain entry to good universities on lower A-level scores than others.

Pete Murray, head of humanities and business, rejects the criticism. "I don't think that's true," he says. "It's much more about making our students aware of the best places and encouraging them to get the grades they need." Professor Worton agrees. The majority of students at City and Islington are from ethnic minorities and most come from families with no experience of higher education. If the college is enabling them to apply to some of the best universities, it is clearly doing its job. "It's more about making the playing field a bit more unlevel against our students," says Murray.