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Students throw Blair to sharks

Well, given the choice, would you save the Prime Minister or Britney Spears? Steve Hook reports on the challenges faced by a group of young people at an aspirational summer school

IMAGINE you have a choice between throwing Tony Blair or Britney Spears from a sinking boat into shark-infested waters to keep it afloat.

That was the challenge faced by a group of aspiring business students at a three-day summer school aimed at encouraging more people from non-privileged backgrounds to go to university. Their decision-making process suggests sexism has a firm place in the boardrooms of the future.

"We decided on Tony Blair," explained Aldeen Fairweather, 25. "I didn't see what use Britney Spears would be to us but I was out-voted by the boys."

Others destined to become shark food were David Beckham (not widely fancied among the male-dominated group), and a doctor (might have been handy but the group wasn't told whether he was a medical doctor).

The survivors of this grim scenario, who would have made a far more satisfying crew for Channel 4's Big Brother house than its former incumbents, were a ship's captain ("likely to be older and therefore wise") and a first-aid worker.

The point of the exercise was to encourage the students, drawn exclusively from further education colleges, to share ideas and exercise their minds with minimal supervision.

It was part of a three-day summer school run by Derby University in partnership with the Sutton Trust, the charity started by millionaire Peter Lampl, which tries to increase access to higher education among youngsters for whom university has not traditionally been considered as an option.

The trust wants to tackle the problem of university education being seen by many young people as the preserve of the middle classes and only for the children of high-achievers.

With skills shortages becoming one of the key factors which business blames for poor performance, the charity is attempting to break the barriers of expectation which prevent bright children from fulfilling their potential in an economy which can't afford to waste their talents.

Aldeen left school with GCSEgrade Cs in English and maths and has completed a one-year HE access course at Derby College, Wilmorton. None of her family went to university. If there is a qualifications culture, Aldeen has signed up for it.

"The more qualifications you can get, the better you are. Achieving is important," she said. "The student mentors from the university have been good at telling us what life is like here, that it is not just about working but about play as well."

The three days dispelled a few preconceptions about the nature of university students for Thomas Reid, 17, of West Bromwich. "I wasn't thinking about going to university before. I wanted to see what it is like. I thought the people would be a bit geeky but then I don't know why I thought that. My mum and dad didn't go to university so there was no way of knowing."

The trust contributed around pound;35,000 to the exercise, including travel and accommodation for the students.

The summer school, which also included introductions to art and IT, was part of FE2HE, a series of similar three-day exercises set up jointly by the trust and the Department for Education and Skills, for people aged 17-25, at universities around the country.

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