How can we help get students from poorer backgrounds into university?


My experience working for The Access Project, a charity that helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds win places at university, has convinced me that when it comes to widening participation, the focal point should always be grades.

On last year’s results day I witnessed several students from an inner-city comprehensive gain a raft of As and A*s after they had received extra help from volunteer tutors. These students always had the potential to succeed, but they weren’t getting top marks until they received just a bit of extra assistance from graduates with a background in the subject.

Aspiration-raising schemes are valuable in ensuring that all those who get the grades to enrol at elite universities are not put off applying through misconceptions. However, they do nothing to tackle a much bigger problem: that each year, around 50,000 students who were at one point in the top fifth of their class do not go on to get a solid set of A-level passes. It is simply not good enough for universities to say that this is a problem at school level that they can do nothing about. As centres of learning which are (still) largely funded by the taxpayer, they have a responsibility to work with schools to improve educational progress, especially in deprived postcode areas.

Universities are being encouraged to form regional partnerships and join their outreach efforts into a coherent whole across their area. This is admirable, but collaboration has to be geared towards improving results in targeted schools. Routes into Languages is a great example of what universities can do when they band together to enrich the curriculum – although exact activities vary from region to region, all are geared to supporting teachers in energising young people about language learning and thus helping them achieve high marks.

It has been recognised in several recent reports that the most effective schemes are those which run over the course of several weeks or even months. Schemes like the LSE’s provision of Saturday schools and student mentoring are fantastic ways of helping students from all backgrounds achieve the grades to go on to study at a prestigious university. That institution has set itself the goal of working with the same cohort from Year 6 through to Year 13, which recognises the need for long-term intervention, and also allows it the time to properly measure the scheme’s efficacy.

Many ‘access’ schemes (including those at Sussex, Birmingham, Warwick and Bristol) work on the basis that if pupils sign up for regular contact with the university while still at school, they will then be made an offer with slightly lower grades. These schemes recognise that long-term commitments to the goal of Higher Education are generally indicative of a student with the perseverance to do well at university. In an ideal world, contextual admissions would be unnecessary because all children would be fulfilling their maximum potential at A-level, but the sad fact is that this is not happening at the moment. We should encourage universities not only to intervene to help address attainment, but also to recognise that the barriers faced by disadvantaged students mean that their grades are not always an accurate reflection of their true ability.

Although universities spend a lot of money on access, the most valuable resource they have to offer schools in under-performing neighbourhoods is in fact the intellectual expertise and will-to-help of both their staff and their students. There are all sorts of ways they could utilise this expertise and energy to help narrow the attainment gap: from encouraging undergraduates to volunteer, to running specific weekend and revision classes for schoolchildren, to developing links between academics and school teachers so they can collaborate on teaching materials and curriculum development. Academics, after all, are being assessed on the ‘impact’ of their research in the next round of funding: what better way to demonstrate impact than by using their expert knowledge to help teachers’ professional development?

In my experience, university students and staff are keen to work with school pupils. The Access Project has a number of post-doctoral volunteer tutors from different London universities, and the Royal Veterinary College is collaborating with us to match their undergraduates with GCSE Science pupils. One of the RVC’s widening participation co-ordinators is so keen on the idea that he’s leading the way himself, tutoring biology for a sixth-former from Highbury Grove School, an Islington comprehensive where more than 55 per cent of students are on free school meals.

It is of course not the sole job of the universities to fix the attainment gap in our schools. But it is not solely the schools’ job either. Just as companies are now cottoning on to the fact that a solid corporate social responsibility record will attract the best employees, universities should see their widening participation work as something that helps them to cement their reputations nationwide and attract the brightest students whatever their background.

The Access Project is a London-based charity that partners with state schools in disadvantaged areas, harnessing the efforts of volunteers from the professions to help pupils win top grades and progress to university.