Analysis: A sober taste of student life

August 10, 2001

Summer schools are raising the aspirations of sixth-formers. Alison Utley reports.

For a boiling hot week last month, Lancaster University's picturesque campus on the edge of the Lake District was home to 260 sixth-formers and college students, many of whom had never been near a university.

One of the first things they wanted to know was how big the dormitories were. "When I told them they got their own rooms they couldn't believe it," said Pip Horner, the student coordinator. "It was the first of many surprises for them during the week."

Next year there will be more summer-school students around the country than ever before when a scheme run by the Higher Education Funding Council for England is extended to more than 100 universities.

About £4 million a year is being set aside to pay for 6,400 places in 2002. The aims, according to Hefce, are to ensure that the most able pupils achieve their full potential and to widen participation among underrepresented groups.

But given that attitudes are likely to have developed over a short lifetime, can a week or two of the summer holidays spent in lecture halls change anything?

At Lancaster, the staff know that settling into their rooms is an important first step for summer school pupils. Many bring their own posters, mirrors and other personal belongings.

Once they have had a chance to meet their neighbours, the students get a talk from their mentors - a small group of undergraduates and postgraduates paid to work with the students for the week. Their brief is to generally be around, answer questions, help things run smoothly alongside the academic staff and share student life skills - such as managing money. One mentor told his group that at the end of term he had just 37p. "Some of them were really shocked but I just said: 'Hey, look at me, I'm still laughing.'" The organisation is something akin to a military campaign. All key staff have walkie-talkies and are fully aware of the responsibility placed upon them. "It's a fine balance," said Lucy Lloyd, the project manager. "We like to say that we are supporting their independence, but of course 16-year-olds are not adults."

A stern talking-to from the dean sets the tone for the week. Fines for noise imposed on undergraduates are also applied to the summer school. And the students wear special badges so that shop assistants and bartenders do not sell them alcohol.

"There is a fine line between making them safe and giving them our trust," Ms Lloyd said. "You are always going to get the odd one who is disruptive." A pupil had to be sent home last year, but there are few discipline problems generally.

So what do the pupils think of university life? Carla, a 15-year-old from St Helens, had expected to be nervous. "I am really enjoying this, making some new friends and the social side has been great," she said. They had already been to see a film, been roped in to various sporting fixtures and a bowling trip was planned that evening.

But what about the academic side? "I am thinking about studying biology, but I wanted to know what being at university would be like because I might opt for nursing instead," she said. "Some of the lectures have been a bit long and I didn't understand everything."

Adam, 16, from Manchester was not sure about going to university and almost dropped out of the summer school at the last moment. "I'm interested in medicine but have been put off university by all the stories I've heard," he said. "Now I've tried it I'm really pleased I made the effort... I love it here."

The groups tended to be very mixed, said Ms Lloyd. Some pupils are confident and outgoing from the beginning and can overpower the quiet ones - although these often come out of their shell within the first few days.

One mentor described how the "little victories" made the job worthwhile. "I had one girl who was very withdrawn to begin with and I spent a lot of time with her, building her confidence," he recalled. "When she volunteered to speak one day, it was a real thrill, it made us all feel really good."

The student mentors are taught the importance of maintaining boundaries though. While they are around to deal with any problems, and more often just answering questions - many about student suicide scare stories - they are not supposed to spend their weekends trailing round with the pupils.

Not all summer schools are Hefce-funded. At Nottingham University, in July, 90 pupils from across the country arrived for the Sutton Trust summer school, funded by millionaire businessman Peter Lampl. After spending the mornings attending lectures in subjects reflecting their A-level studies, the pupils joined workshops on study and presentation skills as well as helping out with the student newspaper and learning how to create a webpage.

Hatinder Hari, undergraduate recruitment officer, said the aim was to expose pupils to the best examples of university learning and teaching while offering a flavour of the various extra-curricular activities.

"Summer school students should have a better understanding of higher education, and we hope to provide them with the confidence to consider university as an option," she said.

The University of Teesside has a scheme run in conjunction with Middlesbrough Council, which this August has an aviation and navigation theme. Children aged between ten and 14 from secondary schools around the region are taken on a boat trip along the River Tees.

Teesside also attracts about 70 year-nine pupils who take on the role of civil engineers to solve problems caused by Hurricane Mitch. The university said the initiative had two key messages: that engineering is challenging, varied and adventurous and that engineering is essential for surviving.

In another themed project at Leeds University, more than 100 teenagers from inner-city schools in the Yorkshire region were cracking codes and solving murders as part of a scheme sponsored by local businesses that recruit graduates from Leeds.

Nearby Bradford University said its summer school targeted young people who had the ability to go on to higher education but had not considered it.

One visitor, 16-year-old Samantha from Keighley, said: "I had not realised there were going to be so many courses available... there has been so much for us to do, we were certainly never bored."

Her friend Johanna said she thought that university would be too scary. "Now I have experienced it, I would advise anyone to apply," she said.

All participating universities cite the widening participation agenda and the aim of extending youngsters' horizons as the driving force behind summer schools.

It is openly acknowledged that getting them young is what recruitment is all about these days, and most universities will be keenly aware of research published a few weeks ago showing that about half of sixth-formers attending summer schools end up applying to their host institution.

Their success probably depends on getting the right mix.

"The seminars may be fun but a taste of university life wouldn't be authentic if it was all work and no play," said Karen Cooper of Leeds University.

"Our teenagers go bowling and to the cinema, they even try their hand at salsa dancing."

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