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Barmaid chases wildlife dreams

Simon Midgley learns how Britain's only residential college for women offers opportunity to those that schools did not reach

Pulling pints in the local pub is rarely seen as a stepping stone to a job in television presenting wildlife programmes. But, for22-year-old Sapphira Sullivan, a barmaid's wages have helped fund the course at Hillcroft College that has won her an offer to read zoology at Imperial College.

Sir David Attenborough is her hero. "But," says the native of Isleworth, London, with a twinkle in her eye, "he is not going to be around for ever."

Ms Sullivan came across Hillcroft, sited in Surbiton, south-west London, while browsing the internet.

She had just lost her job in sales and had decided to return to study, having left school five years ago with two GCSEs at grade C. "I did badly at school. I was more interested in boys and going out," she remembers.

She promptly enrolled on a six-month residential access-to-higher-education course, featuring human biology, computing and visual design; and discovered along the way that she suffered from dyslexia.

With her conditional offer to read zoology under her belt, Sullivan counts as yet another success for Hillcroft College, which caters for around 1,000 students every year with funding from the Learning and Skills Council.

Established in 1920 as a Working Women's College by a group of formidable Cambridge-educated women, Hillcroft remains true to its founding mission: to help through education women who had not previously had the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Britain's only surviving residential tertiary educational institution for women, it is open to applicants aged 20 and over. There are no entrance requirements and grants are available to cover the tuition and accommodation costs of most students. Sullivan's bursaries combined with her barmaid's wages make her, she says, "the richest person in my family".

The single-sex intake fosters a positive ethos, according to Sullivan.

"Being all-women probably helps," she says. " When you get a group of women together, they are generally supportive and talk about their fears and worries."

Set in a grade-II-listed, cavernous country house with its own sprawling lawns and woodlands, Hillcroft can accommodate around 70 students and children. Sullivan gave up her flat to live in.

There is a nursery where children can be looked after while their mothers study.

The access-to-higher-education courses on offer, which may last from a weekend to a year, include management studies, assertiveness, family learning programmes for sole parents, community leadership, IT and English as a second language programmes.

The aim is to help the educationally and socially disadvantaged, including the homeless, the physically abused, former drug abusers and those rehabilitating from prison. But June Ireton, Hillcroft's principal, emphasises that the college is neither a social service nor a therapeutic institution.

It caters for ordinary working-age women who are often unemployed or working part-time, helping them into higher education, vocational training or employment. These are feisty women, Ireton says, who have nowhere near achieved their potential.

With a turnover of some pound;1.5million, the college prides itself on offering a complete residential learning environment where study sessions start at 9am and finish as late as 9pm. The computer suite and library are open 24 hours a day.

A remarkably high proportion of Hillcroft's students go on to university.

For example, 63 per cent of the 20012 Certificate in Higher Education students will have gone to university by October 2003.

While the college is proud of them, it is as mindful of the achievements of its other students who also climb considerable mountains. The important thing is to appreciate the individual "journey travelled".

The college is conducting an audit of how it will continue to fulfil its mission in future. An Adult Learning Inspectorate report earlier this year rated the college as very good, but not outstanding. It also pointed out that the college premises did not offer adequate access to women with disabilities.

Now the college is considering improving its present facilities, once home to Wilberforce Bryant, chairman of the Bryant and May match company. It has occupied the site since moving there in 1926 from its original home in Beckenham. But it might sell up: moving from the prime piece of real estate, minutes from Surbiton station, to a modern building elsewhere.

Whatever the college decides, it will survive as a member of the select band of residential colleges that includes Plater College and Ruskin College in Oxford, Northern College in Barnsley, Fircroft College in Birmingham, New Battle Abbey in Scotland and Coleg Harlech in Wales.

The David Attenboroughs of this world had best watch out, as Hillcroft College continues to speed students like Sapphira Sullivan on their way.

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