Bite-sized taster that leads up to full course

September 5, 2003

More and more academics spend the holiday period running projects to widen participation. Chris Bunting looks at the success of these schemes in the latest in our summer series.

Robert Stewart was 17 when he left Blairgowrie High School in Perthshire. His teachers told him he had no chance of going to university and that it would take him at least four years of study at college to make up the ground he had lost after his disastrous years at school.

"My school wasn't a learning environment," says Stewart, now 22. "There were serious assaults going on and a high level of drug-taking among the pupils. It was the kind of place where it pays to keep a low profile, but I didn't succeed in doing that. My life became miserable."

When he left Blairgowrie, Stewart was taking Roaccutane, a prescription drug designed to treat severe cases of acne. While it helped solve that problem, two months after starting college he began to suffer severe depression - believed to be a side-effect of the drug - and was forced to abandon his studies.

"It took three or four months to get out of the depression, but by then I was in a very difficult situation. I had nothing on my CV," he says. He tried to dig himself out of his problems by joining the Scottish Youth Parliament, eventually rising to be its vice-chairman. He began to contribute pieces of journalism to BBC radio and other outlets, but one question nagged at him: had he missed the education boat?

"I had four standard grades and a higher grade D in business studies. That is probably like an E at A level. It is not very good," Stewart says. "I thought I had no chance of higher education, but my dad had recently been on this summer school at Dundee University. Basically, if you went on it and passed, you could get into university. I went for it like a shot."

Ten weeks of intense study at the Dundee University Access Summer School brought Stewart not just a place at the university but an offer to take a law degree, which would normally require the equivalent of three Bs at A level. In the end, he opted for a degree in town and regional planning, a course, he says, that "has completely changed my life" by giving him choices.

With social inclusion at the top of government education priorities, widening access summer schools of various types have been springing up across the country over the past three or four years, and many academics now spend their summers working on recruitment rather than research. In England and Wales, the Department for Education and Skills has driven much of this development, spending more than £4 million a year on its three-year summer schools scheme, which aims to increase participation in higher education among young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The scheme, part of the Excellence in the Cities programme, targets youngsters who are judged to have high ability and are expected to achieve good A-level results but whose family or educational background is such that they might not apply to a higher education institution or might consider only a limited range of higher education institutions or subjects.

The basic model is of a short course, often residential, aimed at raising students' aspirations by giving them a flavour of university life.

The scheme is modelled on a summer school programme that was run by the Sutton Trust at Oxford University in 1997. The trust now also runs schools at the universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Nottingham and St Andrews, catering for 650 prospective pupils. In addition, it runs the government-funded FE2HE scheme, which offers a similar model of summer schools to students of further education and sixth-form colleges at six universities. Between them, the Sutton Trust and the DFES help fund more than 6,500 summer school places across the UK, in 90 higher education institutions. Their approach dominates the field, says John Rushforth, director of widening participation at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

But there is some criticism from universities that the model - historically rooted in the trust's initial concern with finding "gifted and talented" young people for elite institutions - has been less than effective at targeting large numbers of genuinely disadvantaged children. "The original notion was to identify gifted and talented kids. Over time, the trust has moved towards the social inclusion, widening participation agenda, and you have increasing numbers from poorer backgrounds, but the 'gifted and talented' focus has left its mark," Rushforth says.

Kevin Whitston, director of the widening participation unit at Birmingham University, says the summer schools have been generally positive, but he adds that his university's government-funded scheme has had a problem with targeting. "We had 115 applicants. Ninety came and about 50 per cent of that group were from manual working class or unemployed backgrounds. Given that there are only about 25 per cent from those backgrounds getting into universities, 50 per cent is not bad but it could be better.

"The problem is that the recruitment for summer schools was done centrally and was largely based on the opinion of teachers. So you got schools sending bright kids from not necessarily very deprived backgrounds," he says. The number of black and Asian children on the courses, by contrast, has been higher than their share of the population.

Of the 90 16-year-olds who passed through the Birmingham Summer School in 2001, about half applied to the university and 15 were accepted.

Thirty-seven were expected to get places in some form of higher education, meaning that about 60 per cent of the cohort would fail to get the places they had been asked to aspire to. Research on such summer schools is still in its infancy, but a 2002 report by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that 91 per cent of summer school students said they wanted to go into higher education after their courses, and many in the widening participation field argue that more than aspiration-raising is needed if summer schools are to make a decisive contribution to removing barriers to entry for less-privileged children.

One alternative model has been championed for more than a decade by John Blicharski, director of the Wider Access Study Centre at Dundee University.

His access summer school has provided inspiration for similar schools at the universities of Wales, Aberystwyth and Lampeter. Ten weeks of highly pressured study, with exams throughout the course, aim not just to raise expectations but to radically improve students' attainment and study skills so that they are able to tackle a university course.

"This is not just a glimpse into the world of a university, this is a real bridge for people to get into that world," Blicharski says.

The course's focus on people from non-standard backgrounds is rigorously enforced: this year 260 people applied for 120 places on offer, but only 79 were given the chance to join the course. Blicharski says: "Only two out of those 79 students would have got into any university through the normal process, but we have got three of these people into law and two each into dentistry and medicine. If they complete and pass all the sections of the summer school, they will get an unconditional offer from us." Eighty-six per cent of the students who finish the course take up places at Dundee, and there is no difference in their graduation rate compared with students entering the university by traditional routes.

With about £9.42 million of extra European money due to be pumped into widening access programmes in the next three years, there are signs that the government and Hefce may encourage a greater diversity of summer school development. Key streams of new funding are likely to encourage specialist summer schools, offering in-depth experience of particular subject areas, and to enforce greater regional cooperation between institutions. This will enable summer schools to offer a broad selection of higher education options in one district. Hefce and the government are also promising to fund innovative work.

Stewart is unequivocal in what he wants from the investment: "I didn't need my aspirations raising, although I'm sure there is a place for that with some people. What I needed was a second chance, a way to get over the qualification gap I had, and that is what my summer school gave me."

Next week: summer in a spin-off

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