If his keen-eyed grandmother hadn't spotted a notice in the news-paper one day, Luke Burton believes that he may not have gone to university. "It's a scary thought. I suppose it was one of those life-changing moments. If my nan hadn't cut out that advert and showed it to me, I probably wouldn't be where I am now."
The advertisement was for a summer-school programme for bright youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds, organised by the Sutton Trust, a charitable body set up by the millionaire philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl in 1997. Luke was in Year 12 at the time and living with his father, a self-employed mechanic, near Bristol. Neither of his parents had been to university, and he wasn't sure that he wanted to go either. Nevertheless, he applied for a place on the summer school, and spent a week at Oxford University. The experience was so positive that he decided to apply to Oxford. Now 22, Luke is in his third year reading maths at Magdalen College.
Summer schools are increasingly used as part of widening participation schemes, to encourage young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to apply to university. There are various different schemes - the Sutton Trust's summer schools are targeted specifically at especially gifted youngsters, while Aimhigher, a project run at universities nationwide by the Department for Education and Skills, is aimed at young people from less privileged backgrounds. But the basic idea is the same - youngsters spend a short period of time at a university, where they are given a taste of the experience, with a combination of academic programmes and social events.
"It's a fabulous scheme," says Sharon Bimson, who helps to co-ordinate the Aimhigher summer school at Teesside University. "They're here for five nights and we put something on every night - a mechanical rodeo bull, a sumo-wrestling night, or a disco. The whole week is action-packed. We give them a taste of different subjects, and set them a project to design a university course for the 21st century. The idea is that they learn to study and find out things for themselves."
Claire Smiles-Harrison, the Aimhigher regional summer school co-ordinator for the north-east of England, says that the summer schools have a major influence on whether people go on to university. "Classes are taught by current academic and support staff, and mentors are current university students. It helps to dispel some myths about higher education, and shows youngsters that people at university aren't all rich or snobs or posh."
"The whole idea is to demystify university," says Tim Devlin of the Sutton Trust. "Many of the young people feel that they'll neither get in nor fit in. The summer schools give them a chance to see what university is like."
Sutton Trust summer schools are run at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Nottingham and St Andrews. They are aimed primarily at gifted children whose parents haven't been to university and work in non-professional occupations, and who attend schools and colleges with no history of sending students on to higher education. To publicise the scheme, the organisation writes directly to the heads of schools and sixth-form colleges, suggesting that they encourage bright students to apply, and runs campaigns in The Sun and Daily Mirror newspapers. This year, Devlin says that 2,700 sixth-formers applied for 650 places. Of the students that attend the summer schools, he adds, "half apply to the university, and one in three get in".
Most summer schools employ students who are at the university already to act as mentors for the visiting youngsters. Alison Kennedy went to the Sutton Trust summer school in July 2000 and graduated from Oxford last year. After getting a place at Hertford College, she decided to become a summer-school mentor herself, because she felt that getting to know someone close to her age who was actually studying at Oxford had encouraged her to apply. "You get it straight from the horse's mouth. The students are already there, so there's a resource if you want to know what it's really like. So, after I got in, I went back every year and helped out at summer school, too."
Nikki Brock, 20, is a student mentor on the Aimhigher summer school programme at the University of Teesside, where she's studying for a degree in sport and exercise. She says that she often sees a transformation in the young people on the summer schools over the course of the week. "When the youngsters arrive, many are shy and withdrawn. But by the last couple of days, they're all great friends. It raises their self-confidence and motivates them. It's just a case of showing them that university is not really inaccessible, and not too hard to achieve."