In 1998, a small group of teenagers gathered at Cambridge University to find out whether the university was for them. The group had all been recruited from schools in disadvantaged areas, and they were there as the result of a campaign by the millionaire philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl through his charity, The Sutton Trust. The aim was to try to open up access to the UK's elite universities to those who – along with their schools – might never have thought they could aspire to a place in one of them.
I was in on the start of the scheme. Sir Peter enlisted the help of the paper I was then working for, the Daily Mirror, which printed a coupon along the lines of: "If you think a course at Cambridge could be for you, fill this in and find out."
As a result, 25 Mirror readers' children arrived at Cambridge for the first summer school of its kind to help talented young people from disadvantaged backgrounds aim for the top. As a result, four of them were granted places at Cambridge the following year.
From little acorns... Lee Elliot Major, from the Sutton Trust, now reckons that close on 1,000 students from disadvantaged areas have got into Cambridge after being helped along by this route.
Ten of the country's most selective universities are running summer schools like the one pioneered at Cambridge through the Sutton Trust. Others, such as Oxford, are running their own schemes. Around 500 students attended the summer school at Cambridge this year – and the scheme has a 23 per cent success rate in helping young people secure a place at the host university where they have attended summer school. In addition, 76 per cent of those who attend any of the summer schools end at a top-performing university.
Rhiannon Hucker is hopeful that she will end up following in the majority's footsteps. The 17-year-old from Crickhowell High School in Powys, Wales, went to a five-day summer school at the Royal Veterinary College in London and came away convinced that she should redouble her efforts to get a place there to study veterinary medicine. "It was really most amazing," she says. "It definitely persuaded me that I wanted to go there. It was nice to meet lots of like-minded people – people of my age who were interested in the same thing as me."
Rhiannon especially liked the opportunity to browse through the college's library to build up her understanding of the subject she plans to study.
At one stage, most of the universities in the UK were operating similar summer school schemes through the government-backed "Aim Higher" scheme – which fell victim to cuts under the Coalition government. It was evident, however, than most of the non-Russell Group universities already had better records in recruiting disadvantaged students off their own bat – so therefore it was felt in ministerial circles that spreading the scheme's net so widely did not give as much value for money. "I think nowadays they're mainly in Russell Group universities," says Les Ebdon, director of the Office of Fair Access (Offa), the watchdog that promotes equal access to universities. He and Elliot Major both believe the summer schools are the most effective way of promoting widening participation in higher education. By widening participation, they mean recruiting young people whose families may have no history of higher education – or whose schools have little history of getting pupils into top universities.
Ebdon believes they are helping in part by ridding the universities of their "Hogwarts factor" image, which may make some pupils feel the institutions are part of a society they do not belong to, or don't aspire to belong to. "It's a question of getting students to consider applications to university," he says. "Sometimes, it is helpful for students who know they want to go to university but don't know where they want to go. It helps them with the subject area they want to take. There are people who are nervous about the sciences or possibly haven't even come across the classics before.
"Also, it can help you realise that you will meet up with people like yourself," he adds. "I didn't know anybody – I didn't expect to know anybody – when I first rolled up [at Imperial College, London, in the 1960s]. My mother had told me I'd best wear a suit because that's what they all wore. I think it took me about a week to realise that jeans were okay."
Tom Levinson, head of widening participation at Cambridge University, says: "I think it [the summer school] does good in a lot of different ways. It's a wide range of things. There is definitely something to be said for bringing a lot of state-school students from around the country together – and showing them that these are the kinds of people you will meet on your course. You can't underestimate how powerful that is."
However, he believes Offa, the universities and organisations will have to redouble their efforts to ensure that the supply of talented disadvantaged youngsters continues. Both he and the Sutton Trust, which is carrying out research into the effectiveness of widening participation measures, are aware that some of the money spent on widening participation could be better targeted.
Also, next year students will no longer be able to receive maintenance grants as the Government has decided to replace them with loans, albeit offering students a higher amount than they would have received under the current grants scheme. Accurate predictions as to what will happen, though, are difficult to make. After all, with the introduction of the £9,000-a-year tuition fees, it was widely predicted that students from disadvantaged areas would be put off from applying to higher education – but the reverse ended up being the case, as they realised they did not have to spend anything while they studied and only had to repay the loans when they started earning a decent wage (£21,000 a year).
Nevertheless, the fear is there. "I don't think it is necessarily going to help the cause of widening participation," says Ebdon. "The grant has been, in my opinion, one of the things that – in widening participation – is making it possible for youngsters to come to university. I'm hoping that larger loans will help – at least it keeps true to the policy of ensuring higher education is free at the point of delivery."
Meanwhile, universities are considering ways in which they can expand their widening participating schemes. King's College in London already runs its own specialised scheme alongside the Sutton Trust summer school and now also runs its own summer school for teachers – to help them navigate their pupils' way through the applications process.
Mary Manning, head of chemistry at St Edward's College in Liverpool – one of the teachers to go on the scheme – says: "I can't tell you how good it was. Every state school in the country should have access to this kind of course to help prepare their pupils for applying to university."
King's College, too, is considering extending its summer school scheme to take in younger pupils – a move that has won the backing of Offa. "I think that's a very exciting idea," says Ebdon. "It is not without its problems because you have got to arrange residential activity for young people. The existing summer schools are aimed at those at the end of the first year of the sixth form, who may have already decided they want to go to university – but not where they want to go. At the younger age group, it is more about persuading them to go."
Other universities are also planning similar moves to King's College. Eighteen years after its original launch, it seems the summer-school initiative is reaping the kind of dividends social mobility campaigners have been wanting to achieve for years.
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