University of the West of England, Bristol
Only 13.7 per cent of 18 to 19-year-olds in Bristol go on to university, compared with 20.4 per cent in England as a whole. It is a city where some of the most socially deprived areas of Britain border some of the wealthiest.
The Excellence Challenge partnership is trying to redress the balance by targeting talented but disadvantaged 13 to 19-year olds and offering them help such as individual teaching and learning goals, visits to universities and mentoring.
The partnership is made up of the Bristol education authority, the 20 Bristol secondary schools, the FE colleges, the Bristol Education Action Zone, Bristol special schools with secondary provision, the Unit for Schoolgirl Mothers and four higher education institutions - the universities of the West of England, Bristol and Bath and Bath Spa University College. The West of England Connexions Service and the Learning and Skills Council are also represented.
Its action plan, drawn up with the help of a consultancy team from UWE, has won praise from the Department for Education and Skills.
Its vision is ambitious: every Bristol student will be supported to develop their potential fully and achieve the knowledge and understanding, skills, attitudes and personal qualities to make informed life choices about careers.
Christopher Croudace, who represents UWE on the steering group, said: "It confronts the traditional boundaries of secondary and tertiary education."
Key to its success is mentoring. Peter Scholey, the Excellence in Cities co-ordinator in Bristol, said: "Students from UWE have long acted as mentors, now we are extending the scheme so that adults mentor as well. We want adults to mentor whole families so that pupils are totally supported as they progress."
The seven aims of the Excellence Challenge, from developing a partnership to ensuring that young people have a successful transition when moving between institutions post-16 and post-19, are set against current baselines.
Aim three, for example, which is to raise the achievement levels of young people aged 16 to 19 in partnership institutions, looks at the average points scores of students and sets targets to improve them.
State schools in the Bristol EiC area have been working to provide learning opportunities for the most gifted children aged 13 to 16. The new funding made available through Excellence Challenge will enable the programme to be extended to young people post-16.
Debbie Sainsbury, responsible for the summer schools run with the local universities as part of Excellence Challenge, said: "We have been very careful to target them at pupils with no history of higher education in their families."
Pupils were asked whether they found the summer schools helpful. "We found that students from disadvantaged areas become hooked on higher education," she said.
Another priority for the Bristol partnership is master classes for Advanced Extension Awards - exams designed to test pupils in greater depth than A levels. The four universities will work with the partnership to support masterclasses in at least 12 AEA subjects.
Mr Scholey said: "We have always worked with UWE but the new push and the new monies mean that many exciting possibilities have opened up with Bristol and the Bath universities."
University of Sheffield
At Sheffield University, Allan Johnson, head of recruitment and admissions, is responsible for overseeing the Excellence Challenge. He has worked closely with colleagues in the EiC initiatives to draw up plans for Sheffield and Rotherham.
"We have been running widening participation initiatives for years and came above our benchmark for widening participation," he said. "What the challenge has allowed us is greater coordination and a higher profile."
Mike Garnock-Jones is the Excellence Challenge coordinator in Rotherham. "Each school in the Excellence Challenge has a coordinator. We held a meeting earlier this month to talk through what widening participation means for them. Some, dealing with 14 to 15-year-olds, couldn't really see what the initiative had to do with them, so we looked at how to raise aspirations."
Sheffield University is working with Sheffield Hallam University on the challenge. Sheffield Hallam is in the early stages of planning a mentoring scheme that could include all 15 to 16-year-olds in the area.
But Mr Garnock-Jones thinks universities still have a long way to go. "They are running more modular and part-time courses, but need to be more flexible. When I trained to be a social worker, I had to give up work for two years. We need more dovetailing with work."
Many academics in the university are behind the challenge. Dr Johnson said:
"I think what is exciting the academics most are the master classes for the advanced extension awards. I have just attended a meeting in the school of English to discuss the classes. They will allow disadvantaged, bright pupils and academics to engage. Lecturers from the school of English also plan to meet selected English teachers from the schools to discuss Curriculum 2000."
Oxford Brookes University
"Oxford Brookes did not do well on its benchmark for widening participation and that, along with the Excellence Challenge monies, has given my work a new importance within the university," said Pat Norman, regional liaison director for the university.
Oxford is not participating in the Excellence in Cities initiative, so the university is instead building close links with the nearest EiCs and has worked within Oxford with the East Oxford Education Action Zone. This contains just one secondary school.
"It has been very important for us to work with the EAZ," said Ms Norman. "We have used a benefactor's money to fund a liaison post with the EAZ and have been able to pilot a number of initiatives."
She said that Oxford Brookes had worked closely with Oxford University. Both universities are running master classes and mentoring schemes aimed at pupils identified by the school as having potential.
Gloria Walker, director of the EAZ for Oxford, said: "The challenge has meant that Oxford University now has one coordinator for this work and that is very beneficial."
Oxford Brookes has also extended its Passport scheme to year ten 15-year-old pupils.
"We set up the scheme five years ago and have been working with a number of Oxfordshire schools and FE colleges to encourage year 12, or 17-year-olds, into higher education," Ms Norman said.
"About 200 pupils were chosen by their teachers last year for one-day workshops to encourage students to apply to university. After the workshop, 72 per cent said they felt more confident about applying. We are now extending the scheme to year-ten pupils as so many leave at 16."
Oxford Brookes runs summer schools. "The Excellence Challenge specifically channels money into summer schools," Ms Norman said. "Last year we ran a summer school for pupils from two local schools in disadvantaged areas and found it enormously successful."