'It was a turning point for me'

Too many disadvantaged children are fearful of going to university. But summer schools taking place right now at campuses all over Britain aim to give them a taste of student life - and prove that they will fit in
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For the group of 15-year-olds attending the University of Strathclyde's Summer Academy, this is the culmination of a two-week on-campus programme where they get a taste for what a university education would be like, and what it can be used for. Wearing lab coats and serious expressions, it's up to them to analyse bodily fluids, food and DNA samples, and to uncover the truth.

"It's brilliant," says Stephanie Rooney, 14, from Eastbank Academy. "I hate science at school. It's pure boring and lots of work. This is really different." Sara McLaughlin, 14, from St Margaret's School, is just as enthusiastic: "It's learning the fun way. I watch CSI all the time, and I was trying to decide whether I wanted to be a forensic scientist. Now I definitely want to."

This is the kind of feedback that the Summer Academy's director, Christine Percival wants to hear. Since 1999, the Academy has been striving to tackle the "it's nae fur me" attitude to university education that is common among students from Glasgow's economically deprived areas, and to motivate those students who have the potential to get university-level marks, but don't have the confidence or inclination to push themselves.

"We saw that many young adults are demotivated before they go into the Standard Grade year [at 15 years old]. We wanted to create an environment where they were protected and could be pushed to exceed their own expectations," says Percival.

That environment is the Jordanhill campus of Strathclyde University, where undergraduate and postgraduate students act as mentors to the 250 schoolchildren who file through their doors every two weeks across the summer. By the end of the course, they are writing scripts, filming their own version of Can't Cook, Won't Cook - in French - and organising the university-style graduation ceremony that tops off the fortnight.

"We call it stealth learning," says Percival. "The challenges are curriculum-based, but not so as they could recognise it."

And it's not just Glasgow that recognises the need to tackle attitudes towards higher education. Research by the Sutton Trust shows that, although students from poor social backgrounds make up 30 per cent of young people nationally, they only make up 8 per cent of the 33,575 students attending the country's 13 leading universities. This means that, on the basis of their A-level results, there are 500 individuals every year from low-participation postcodes who are missing out on opportunities they've earnt.

Examine the grades of students from state schools across the country, and this figure goes up. Although from 1997/98 to 2002/03 the number of state school students admitted to leading universities rose by 35 per cent from 16,900 to 22,800, there are still 3,000 "missing" students every year, who should be at the UK's Ivy League institutions but decide to go elsewhere.

Louise Horsfall, the widening participation manager at Oxford University, puts it down to "concern over whether they are going to fit in since there's no tradition [of university attendance] among family and friends, concern over whether they're academically good enough, not feeling confident about travelling so far from home, and a lack of self-belief."

To tackle this, the Sutton Trust has been running annual summer schools at Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Nottingham universities since 1997. For one week in July, promising Year 12 state school pupils - whose families have not been to university and whose parents are employed in non-professional jobs - are invited to spend a week, for free, on campus.

The students choose one subject from a list including law, medicine, physics and theology, and then attend lectures and tutorials as if they were an undergraduate student. They can also take part in extracurricular activities such as African drumming, rowing and debating, as well as familiar entertainments like cinema, bowling and ice-skating. "They get to try new activities that they haven't tried before, and others they are familiar with, so it reassures them that they can do all the things they were doing at home," says Horsfall.

Most importantly, however, they are guided through the week by an undergraduate mentor who, like themselves, attended a state school. "It's all about confidence building," says Horsfall. "By meeting the student mentors who are just like them, and by meeting their peers from similar backgrounds, it shows them that they can make friends and fit in outside of their direct social area."

For Jon Robertson, 17, from St Cuthbert's High School in Newcastle, this is exactly what happened when he went to study law for a week at Oxford. "It was great. I met people on the train on the way down, and with everyone thrown into the same boat, we all got along from day one."

And did Oxford live up to its ivory tower image? "It still has that image, but you can tell by the mentors that there's a new generation of people from different backgrounds," says Robertson. "Being there is based on intelligence as much anything else."

Exactly the message Oxford is trying to get across with this summer school, as well as the government-sponsored higher education summer school aimed at Year 11s, and the AimHigher school aimed at Year 10s from South-east England, both also held in July. "We want the brightest and best students," says Horsfall, "and if we are going to get them, we need to target non-traditional backgrounds."

It's an approach that seems to be working. Since the summer school's inception in 1997, there has been a 49 per cent rise in student admissions from postcode areas that traditionally do not send pupils on to higher education. Furthermore, the National Foundation for Educational Research found that, of the 64 students who attended the very first Sutton Trust Summer School, 16 were offered conditional places and 14 were accepted to Oxford in the autumn of 1998.

Many of this year's mentors, too, were once summer-school pupils themselves. A similar scenario is happening at Strathclyde's Summer Academy. Kirsty Findlater, 21, is a law student at the University of Strathclyde. She attended the first Academy in 1999 and is now back for her second year as a mentor, because she feels she "wants to give something back".

"For me it was a life-changing experience. At school I felt I just couldn't do maths and thought it would weaken my chances of getting in to university," she recalls. "Then I came to the Summer Academy and my group won the maths challenge. That was a turning point for me. I think my problem had been low confidence. When I went back to school I thought: 'Maybe I can do this', so I started really working and ended up getting a 1 in my standard grades and an A in my highers."

And she's not the only one. Research published last year shows that 67 per cent of those students who attended the 2003 Academy achieved five or more passes at Level 1 or 2 - twice the national average. When asked whether the Academy had improved their attitude to schoolwork, 80.47 per cent said it had; 64.98 per cent said they thought it had helped improve their Standard Grade results; and 69.69 per cent said it had raised their aspirations to go on to higher education.

This first-class report card is earning the Summer Academy overseas interest. This year, the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona is beginning a replica programme for the 15-year-olds of Catalonia, while, for the first time, students from Sweden, Holland and Spain will be jetting in to Glasgow to take part.

"Today's young people have far higher needs. They have to compete in a European market, so we have to provide the youngsters with the skills they'll need," says Percival. "Obviously, the more educated our workforce is, the more important a player we can be on the European front."

But is a university education the only way of guaranteeing a top job? Recently, the annual City & Guilds vocational rich list totted up the wealth of millionaires who never went to university, including Alexander McQueen, the fashion designer, who left school at 16 to pursue a tailor's apprenticeship.

"What we want to do is give them the choice," replies Percival. "We live in a society of lifelong learning, and to succeed we need to be able to adapt. What we're giving them is a passport to choose whether they want to study further now, later, or maybe never."

Horsfall agrees: "It's about increasing your chances of having a successful career. There are many people who have had successful careers without a university education. But our aim and the Government's aim is to ensure that all sorts of people have access to higher education."