Charity's new scheme offers hope on fairer university access access
04 May 2011 The Guardian
The launch of Nick Clegg's social mobility strategy earlier this month seemed doomed from the start. After pledging to end a culture where career progression is less dependent on "who your father's friend are", the revelation that Clegg's father got him an internship at a bank fuelled a row about MPs whose daddies gave them a leg-up in their career. This was swiftly followed by David Cameron's Oxbridge admissions gaffe, where he claimed – inaccurately it transpired – that he had seen figures suggesting that just one black student made it into Oxford last year.
While seemingly blighted by blunders, the government's social mobility strategy is an attempt to narrow the differences in attainment of different social groups. And one of the biggest dilemmas for government is: how do you get more bright students from poorer homes into the most competitive universities without lowering entry standards?
It is catch-22 for ministers committed to improving social mobility, but opposed to social engineering. The rush towards the maximum £9,000 tuition fee has prompted renewed concern about the failure of selective universities to broaden their intake. It is also a pressing issue for universities themselves since, as a condition of charging higher fees, they must show that they are using some of that cash to improve access from so-called non-traditional students.
The evidence from recent years shows that, while there has been progress in getting a wider range of young people into higher education, there has been precious little movement towards "fairer access" (that is, ensuring a broader intake at top universities). Recently published research from the Sutton Trust – a charity that aims to promote social mobility through education – shows private-school students are 55 times more likely to win a place at Oxbridge and 22 times more likely to go to a top-ranked university than students at state schools who qualify for free school meals.
And while the universities minister, David Willetts, says universities can now admit students on the basis of potential, there is a suspicion that fairer access means a bias against the middle classes. The general consensus seems to be: start young.
In a forthcoming report to the prime minister, Simon Hughes, the government's newly appointed advocate for access to education, is set to recommend greater use of mentors and "higher education advocates" to work in schools with little experience of sending students to leading universities.
However, amid all this scratching of heads over fairer access, one charity is providing an answer. Villiers Park Educational Trust, already one of England's leading specialist charities working with gifted and talented pupils, has changed its strategy to focus on able but disadvantaged pupils through a new initiative known as the scholars programme.
The goal is to get able students from less advantaged backgrounds to gain places at leading universities, but the charity's chief executive, Richard Gould, is adamant that this should be achieved without skewing admissions arrangements. "After 14 years of schooling, it is only right that students should get the universities' standard offer at A-level," he says.
Launched in 2009, the Villiers Park scholars programme currently has 240 students from years 10 to 13, drawn from relatively disadvantaged areas of Swindon in Wiltshire and Hastings and Bexhill in East Sussex.
To qualify for the programme, students must score high marks in either non-verbal reasoning tests or GCSEs, and must be in receipt of free school meals, the education maintenance allowance (EMA) or be the first generation of their family intending to enter sixth form or university.
Once accepted on to the programme, Villiers Park scholars receive a range of support including regular one-to-ones with a learning mentor, masterclasses, workshops to prepare for university admissions, and residential courses. The charity also works with the scholars' schools and colleges to develop everyday classroom provision.
Tim O'Brien, executive director for young learners at Sussex Coast College in Hastings, which encourages its students to apply for the programme, says it has "boosted students' confidence and helped them realise they have the potential to go to a top university or to apply for competitive courses like veterinary science".
Year 13 student Aisha Merrick is one such example. She says she was unsure about her future before she joined the programme. Now she has five conditional offers to read business studies. "I had no idea what I wanted to do and was not sure about going to university". But, she says, the mentoring was "brilliant" and really helped to boost her confidence.
It was the residential courses, held at the Villiers Park centre in the Cambridgeshire village of Foxton, that really changed her mind about applying to university. There are two types of courses: general study skills (such as research, presentation and problem-solving) and subject-specific courses where students work at degree level with very able students from across the UK. "Back at college we didn't talk much about going to university, but coming and meeting different people made me think about it," says Merrick.
Laurence Flint needs three As at A-level to study architecture at Nottingham. Being involved in the programme has opened up new possibilities for him, he says. "The best part was meeting people from other parts of the country. They were all very set on what they were going to do and some were from grammar and private schools. It gave me confidence that I could do it, too."
Dean Slidel has a similar story to tell. Like Merrick and Flint, he receives EMA and – if he gets to university – will be in the first generation of his family to do so. He is studying maths, law and art at A-level, and needs two As and a B to get into the University of Westminster to study architecture. The subject masterclasses have been invaluable, he says. "It takes you into new areas and gets you thinking."
But it is not just about changing the lives of the individuals involved, says Sir Dexter Hutt, executive leader of the Hastings Federation of Schools, which also has students on the programme. "The magic has been the impact not just on the scholars, but on their families, too. It influences both parents' aspirations and siblings' plans for the future."
O'Brien agrees, saying that "involving families and teachers is all about raising aspirations, particularly in a town like Hastings with high levels of social deprivation."
It is clearly an approach that works, says Gould. To date, more than 17,000 students have been helped by Villiers Park across all its programmes. More than 50% of those were young people from less advantaged homes, and more than 80% went on to leading universities. To avoid charges of elitism, Villiers Park defines "leading universities" as any course ranked in the top 20% in the country. For some subjects that might be a handful of universities, for others it will be more.
The dilemma now is how to expand the model. The programme costs about £1,700 a year for each scholar. As a charity, Villiers Park provides this free. But cash is running out. A fundraising campaign is planned, but the charity is now appealing to universities to use some of their additional fee income to support scholars programmes in their own areas. It also hopes schools will use the government's pupil premium – set at £430 per pupil on free schools meals or in care – to fund students on the scheme.
That puts the ball squarely in the court of the government, universities, schools and perhaps wealthy philanthropists wanting to support social mobility. As Gould puts it: "We have a strong belief that this could become a leading national initiative to address fair access, but we will need financial support to move it on."
<I should declare an interest as a voluntary trustee of the Villiers Park Educational Trust>