Simply the best

Nearly half of all university students come from colleges rather than schools. Amy McLellan reveals why

The now-traditional summer conflagration over A-level results and exam standards often overshadows the achievements that pupils at further education colleges are making year after year (see John Brennan's comment, left). According to the Association of Colleges, some two-thirds of young people go to college for their 16-18 education, and nearly half of all students going to university will do so from local colleges.

The now-traditional summer conflagration over A-level results and exam standards often overshadows the achievements that pupils at further education colleges are making year after year (see John Brennan's comment, left). According to the Association of Colleges, some two-thirds of young people go to college for their 16-18 education, and nearly half of all students going to university will do so from local colleges.

"College is a halfway-house between school and university," observes Ann West, director of general education at Lewisham College. "At school you are still in quite a small pond, but here there are 16,000 students and you are in the adult world."

Many students relish the opportunity to make a fresh start at college. "Students get histories at schools that stay attached to them," says Sharon Marriott of Bradford College, the fourth largest FE college in the country. "But they come to us with a completely blank sheet and a lot of them say that makes a big difference."

The level of support, be it academic or pastoral, can also exceed the capability of most schools. The range of A-levels on offer is usually extensive.

"The huge popularity of psychology A-level, for example, would be well catered for in a college environment," says the AOC's Rosemary Clark. "And the economies of scale mean colleges can offer a very large learning resource plus careers guidance, counselling and accommodation advice."

Further education colleges are also well-equipped to push their very brightest students to make the most of their potential. Lewisham offers weekly tutorials - one-to-one sessions where students can raise personal or academic issues, and tutorials designed to provide the skills to succeed at university.

"We also have an enrichment programme to give them something extra," says West. "We've an academy of finance, for example - students can do a six-week internship in the City."

Victoria Ossadtchi applied to the LSE to study law after taking a Lewisham study week at the university. Last month she got A grades in law, sociology and Russian plus two As at AS Level. The achievement was all the more notable given that four years ago Victoria moved to the UK from Russia, unable to speak English.

Donald Ewas Makon also had to play catch-up with his English skills after he moved to the UK from French-speaking Cameroon. "Usually people take a year to study English but I went straight into studying a proper course," says Donald. "It was very difficult, a nightmare actually. I would spend nights working at my computer."

Donald more than rose to the challenge, however, and has secured ABB in maths, physics and chemistry at A-level. His achievement is more astounding considering that the 18-year-old lives on his own and works full-time, currently at Tesco.

"I'm applying to Cambridge next month," he says. "My teacher thought I could make it and raised my confidence." But Donald must wait a year because, with only two years' residence in the UK, he doesn't yet qualify for a student loan. Marie Cawley, from Stoke on Trent College, has also beaten the odds to achieve her goals. She got three As at A-level in biology, chemistry and maths, winning a place to study medicine at Keele University, despite having her schooling severely disrupted. A debilitating hip condition means Marie has been in and out of hospital for surgery from the age of 10, and still undergoes a rigorous daily physiotherapy regime.

"The college has been very supportive," she says. "If I've had to miss a day then they've been very helpful about catching up with the work."



'OXBRIDGE IS NOT UNATTAINABLE'

Bradford College student Richard Killip starts his degree in land economy at Queens' College, Cambridge this October. Richard, who secured A grades in A-level business studies and English, C in ICT A-Level and A in AS geography, is the first from his family to attend university. This achievement was aided in no small measure by his teachers at Bradford.

"The first time I ever thought about going to Oxford or Cambridge was when I went to enrol for college and they looked at my results and said I should apply for Oxbridge," recalls Richard. "It did appeal, but then you get the feeling that it's not for you and that it's unattainable."

Bradford put Richard in touch with a mentoring scheme at Oxford University and organised a one-week summer school at Cambridge. "There are a lot of myths around Oxbridge, about the public school kids and snobbery, but I found everyone really friendly," says Richard.

"The interviews were challenging, but if you don't give it a try then you will never know." Richard says the support of teachers at Bradford was critical to his success.

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