Under pressure to recruit from a broader range of backgrounds, universities are offering school pupils a taste of college life during their summer break. Catherine Quinn reports.
Victoria Narra, a pupil at Clacton County High School, has just finished her summer school at the University of Essex and is full of the experience. "One of the teachers put me forward," she says. "I never thought about coming here before, but it has changed my mind completely."
She says it taught her about aspects of university life distinct from academia. "I never thought they'd have a climbing wall. It's just been laughter all week. With applying, it has been really helpful. Now I know what to write and what not to write."
Summer schools were once ad hoc arrangements, run by enterprising institutions for a variety of reasons: to be part of a local community and to showcase courses and lecturers, as well as to help recruitment. Now they have become the route to reaching non-traditional students.
This summer saw the third consecutive year of government-funded university summer schools, designed to tackle the problem of an estimated 20,000 bright sixth formers who pass up university each year. They aim to educate youngsters in the advantages of university life, paying for a week's residence and providing a selection of activities during July and August.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England increased its funding to encompass 65 universities and colleges and 6,400 students for summer 2002, offering programmes to pupils from schools that have been targeted for improvement. Teachers put forward year-11 pupils, aged 15-16, for the summer placements, which take their inspiration from the summer schools run by the Sutton Trust, a charity dedicated to increasing educational opportunities. This year, the trust, which has been running summer schools for six years, sponsored 740 year-12 pupils, and co-sponsored 410 with the Department for Education and Skills.
Tim Devlin, press adviser for the Sutton Trust, says the trust works hard to select the most appropriate students for the programme. "We pick students who will be the first generation in their family to attend university," he says. "We also look at the schools - those with a poor record of students going to university, or tending towards low A-level scores."
The process is monitored by the National Foundation for Educational Research and the trust meets the cost of pupils' travel to and from the university, as well as providing food, accommodation and funding for trips and activities.
But it is the universities that take responsibility for running the schools, and they are often keen to do so because of the extra money available from Hefce for efforts to widen participation. The Sutton Trust, which operates summer schools at Bristol, Nottingham, St Andrews, Oxford and Cambridge universities, places special emphasis on encouraging applications to universities seen as exclusive, while Hefce schemes have a much broader university spectrum.
Julian Pickles, widening-participation schools-liaison officer at Bristol University, finds summer schools particularly useful as part of a wider drive for diversity. "We have a problem where some universities are seen as old fashioned, and it is something that universities such as Bristol have to address," he says.
The Hefce schools operate along the same principles as those run by the Sutton Trust and use Sutton Trust criteria for selecting pupils. However, they take pupils a year earlier, which some staff think is preferable. Hatinder Hari, summer-school organiser at Nottingham University, says:
"When they are in year 12 they have often thought about university. In year 11 they probably don't know what it is about, so it is a better age to get them."
Hefce summer schools have adhered closely to the Sutton Trust curriculum for their programmes, with a mixture of academic projects and more diverse activities. Hefce says that the programmes should include "teaching in the generic subject areas offered by the higher education institute", alongside "group work, team-work, problem solving and introduction to study techniques". It also advises universities to include sessions on career aspirations, graduate employability and on applications through the University and Colleges Admissions Service.
Hari says that for both Sutton Trust and government placements she might start by organising academic sessions for students relating to the subject they have applied for, while the afternoon will be devoted to special options. Examples of things that worked well, she says, include "turntableism" - "which is basically learning how to be a DJ" - and sessions where students learnt unusual languages such as Mandarin Chinese. This year, the university is offering a session on street dance, and tuition in how to design and upload a web page.
Evenings are usually devoted to social activities, ranging from outdoor theatre and cinema to bowling and tuition in circus skills.
Students will certainly find summer schools fun, but do they fulfil their intended role? The signs are good. About half of the students who attend Sutton Trust projects apply to their summer-school university, and half of those are offered a place.
In terms of government-funded schools it is too early to say. But initial feedback compiled by Hefce is positive. Nearly 65 per cent of students felt that summer school had helped "a lot" or "a fair amount" in their decision-making over whether to apply to higher education. And of the pupils who attended the summer schools in 2000, 73 per cent went into higher education in autumn 2001, while 23 per cent intended to go after a gap year, or hoped to go after retaking exams. About 60 per cent said that the summer school had influenced their decision.
There are plans to expand the Hefce-based summer schools, pending a fuller review. The funding council is also likely to increase funding to regional Partnerships for Progression schemes, allowing them to allocate more funding to summer schools from next year.
For some students, attendance at a summer school may already have changed their lives. Gautam Patel, enrolled at Oxford University after his sponsorship by the Sutton Trust, says the experience was essential to his choosing to apply to the university. "I had the opportunity to have lectures and the challenge of an Oxford tutorial, and I met students who were very open with their opinions about the university and the different courses. After spending three years at Oxford I don't have one regret. It has been an amazing experience."