Students go forth to multiply their numbers

Cambridge undergraduates adopt widening participation agenda with a missionary zeal. Nicholas Pyke reports.

There was a time when the gentlemen of Pembroke College, Cambridge, were sent to south-east London as missionaries, spreading the word of God from a Victorian outpost of the university called Pembroke House.

Now, 120 years after it was built, the Cambridge undergraduates have returned to their mission hall, a gloomy brick building hidden among the flats and tenements off the Old Kent Road.

This time, however, they are there to spread the gospel of higher education. Children from professional families are five times as likely to go to university as their peers in Southwark, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country.

Only a fifth of undergraduates come from outside the top three income groups, a proportion which has failed to rise since Labour came to power. According to education minister Margaret Hodge, more than 40 per cent of young people from lower socio-economic groups never even think about university. This is why, together with a group of six other universities, Pembroke College has "adopted" the Walworth area and its schools, using Pembroke House, its old mission hall as the base.

At last week's launch of the Pembroke House higher education project, the master, admissions tutor and undergraduates rubbed shoulders with 60 local teenagers while on stage a steel band played The Girl from Ipanema.

The Old Kent Road in January is a long way from Rio, and for many of the children Cambridge University is even more remote. For decades now, well-scrubbed undergraduates have taken day trips to their old schools urging the sixth-formers to apply.

But the Pembroke House project marks a new approach, according to Susan Stobbs, Pembroke admissions tutor and director of admissions for Cambridge University as a whole. In particular, it is aiming to work with much younger children, starting with 13-year-olds.

Cambridge is not doing this alone, another important change from the past. The project is backed by King's College London; Imperial College, London; Guildhall University; Roehampton University of Surrey; South Bank University and Brunel University.

They are all supplying student volunteers who, they hope,will establish personal relationships with the pupils for the next two or three years. The project is also more professional than previous initiatives , funded for at least three years by Pembroke and the Drapers, a city livery company, and with its own part-time co-ordinator.

Amy O'Shea, a 13-year-old from Walworth school, went to the project to find out how to become a maths teacher, but came out wondering if she should study art instead.

"The students were really kind," she said. "They talked to you one to one. In school there's not a lot of time to do that because the teachers are too busy." Angelina Adams, assistant head at the school, said that for many of her pupils, higher education is an alien world. "They think university is just about boffin culture," she said. "But from meeting the students they saw you can be a fully rounded person and a student as well. A lot of them have gone back and said 'I have a better idea of what I want to do. I have to focus. I have to start work now'."

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