Taunton school hires top consultant to get its pupils into the Ivy League

The appeal of studying in the US is growing as fees rocket at home.

Sophie Bowden is set to graduate in four years' time without a penny's worth of student debt. Nor will she have to fret this summer as to whether she will get the necessary A-levels to meet the demands of a conditional offer from a university. The 17-year-old from Taunton School, Somerset, is one of a growing band of young people who have nailed their colours to the masts of American universities.

She has already been guaranteed a place on a full scholarship to study at the University of Connecticut. The university will pay her fares, find her accommodation, pay for flights back during the holidays and give her a clothing allowance while she is in the States.

Sophie has a trump card up her sleeve – she is one of the country's best young hockey players and the University of Connecticut is a serious player in the US's university hockey league. "I'm so excited about it," she says. "When I went over there they gave me a taste of what it was going to be like. They were just so friendly – even the parents of students who were already there came up and said if there was anything I wanted to ask them, they'd be happy to help."

Of course, Sophie will have to study while she is out there and to retain her place in the hockey team she will have to satisfy the university that she is keeping up with the demands of her course.

American students are given their university places on the understanding they will complete their graduation from high school, and Sophie has been offered a place on a similar basis. She just has to satisfy Connecticut that she has completed her studies rather than meet any particular grade boundaries.

For the first year, she will take a liberal science course and will decide on what to specialise in at the start of the second year, then complete a three-year degree course.

Small wonder, perhaps, with the advent of the £9,000-a-year degree course in the UK this summer that offers such as Connecticut's are becoming more attractive to a growing number of students. So much so, that Taunton, an independent school, now has a master in charge of American universities – David Hawkins, who began at the school as a history teacher five years ago. He went to Oxford University but did dabble with the idea of studying in the US before he settled on a UK degree course.

When one of the pupils expressed an interest in studying in the US, he knew enough to try and help them through the admissions process and has built up an armoury of knowledge since then. A growing number of Britain's independent schools are now making such appointments.

This year Taunton has four students who have either been offered a place at an American university or are still considering whether to go. David Chesire and Norwood Yoon, both aged 17, have applied to a range of American universities. David's first choice would be Chicago, where he wants to study economics, although he has put in for a number of UK universities as well. Both David, from Kenya, and Norwood, from South Korea, are among the school's international students and do not have the financial incentive to go the US rather than the UK. However, the number of international students considering the US is growing too.

In addition to supplying his own pupils with the necessary knowledge to make a foray into the unknown, David Hawkins has also taken on a regional role aimed at exploring options abroad.

Some universities, such as Harvard, have already visited Taunton School. In April, though, 24 US universities will be visiting Taunton to sound out pupils about whether they would like to study there. State school pupils as well as those from the independent sector are planning to attend. "We've had some interest from parents and from Richard Huish sixth-form college [one of the top-performing state sixth-form colleges in the country]," he says.

"The universities wouldn't come just for one school but with a bigger number it makes it worth their while." Taunton also acts as the regional centre for Sats tests, the verbal reasoning examination that helps determine whether young people are offered a place at a US university.

UK students may be at a disadvantage because, for instance, they study a different history syllabus or English curriculum. However, admissions staff in the US are happy to point out where their studies are different. "Some of them may not have studied maths for 18 months by the time they take their Sats tests," says Mr Hawkins.

The US universities, though, see the Sats test as an IQ test. "They gauge much more on personality than on just your academic strengths," says David Chesire. "It gives you an opportunity to list what you've done for charity or your extra curricular activities."

The driving force behind the trend towards pursuing US university options is the school's head teacher John Newton. He thinks Taunton should be equipping its pupils for life in a global world. "There are too many 20th-century schools out there," he says, "and this is the 21st century. For my pupils, it's not a case of 'there'll always be an England and Britain rules the waves'.

"UK universities are still the second-best universities in the world that you can go to but I think the Americans like the quality of education you can get here. The OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] lists our private schools as the best in the world for providing 13-to-18 education and so there are fantastic opportunities out there."

Fantastic and possibly cheaper, if students can tap into the bursaries from US universities. "In the past 18 months with tuition fees going up to £9,000 a year there's been more of a questioning of 'what are we going to get for our money?'," says Mr Hawkins. "In terms of initial interest about 50 expressed some. It could be more this year."

The picture is still unclear as to how the new fees structure will hit recruitment to UK universities. The figures show that, despite an over 8.7 per cent drop in applications, there are still more applicants than places.

However, with more state schools looking at European universities and independent schools taking a more serious look at what the US has to offer, it will be the long-term trends that UK universities will be watching as the new fees regime beds down.