A brief taste of the higher life

24th August 2007 at 01:00
Leading universities are encouraging teenagers who may not have applied for places to think again

AS THE judge slowly leaned forward, the hushed tones of the courtroom turned into laughter. "If you want me to hear your case," he intoned to the lead barrister for the prosecution, "you must remember to put on your wig before you speak."

Fortunately for the lawyer hoping to secure a conviction in the case of a Cambridge student callously murdered, she was only practising.

The mock trial ended three days of legal lectures and seminars for the 17 year-olds attending a Cambridge University summer school.

Organised by the Sutton Trust, an education charity, the scheme is aimed at pupils unlikely to apply to top universities because of their backgrounds, despite achieving at least five A grade GCSEs. The teenagers are typically the first in their families to consider going on to higher education, have parents in non-professional jobs and attend schools in relatively deprived areas or with poor A-level results.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the summer schools, held at Cambridge, Oxford, Nottingham, Bristol and St Andrews universities. More than 4,000 students have attended over the past decade, with the impressive result of up to a third going on to secure places to study full time at those universities.

With the summer school application system going online from this year, all pupils who attend will be tracked to see where they ultimately go to university.

As well as law, other taster sessions include music, engineering and foreign languages.

Amy Ferguson, 17, one of the law hopefuls, spent a week at Robinson College, Cambridge. Without the scheme she would never have considered applying to the university, she said. Her father, a welder, had to give up his job to care for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis.

"I have always wanted to go to university, but I never thought I had a chance of going to Cambridge," said Amy, from Hillview girls' school in Tonbridge, Kent. "Now I will definitely give it a shot. Taking part this week has given me the self-confidence to believe that I could come here and succeed.

"We have been harassing the undergraduates with questions, because unless you know people who go to these universities, you'll never have the chance to find out."

Amy was prompted to apply by her teachers. All schools and colleges in the country were sent information about the scheme. Then the 2,200 applicants for this year's courses were whittled down to fill the 650 places available.

The scheme is the brainchild of Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust in 1997, after he became worried at decreasing levels of social mobility for children from poorer families. The philanthropist funds a range of initiatives from early years to higher education for young people from non-privileged backgrounds, having made his fortune working in private equity in the United Sates.

The summer school scheme now receives more than three applicants for each place, but it struggles to attract boys. Twice as many girls as boys applied this year, repeating the pattern of the past four years.

Ali Kazmi, from Carlton Bolling college in Bradford, who attended the English summer school at Cambridge, said his classmates thought it was "not cool" to spend part of the holidays at university. "That kind of attitude puts off people from applying," he said.

"A lot of boys don't want to go to university and say that Cambridge is for super-geeks. That just made me more determined to go.

"The work during the week was pretty difficult but it was a great experience."

Ali's school was placed in special measures between September 2002 and December 2004. He says that behaviour at the school has improved significantly, but the ambition of many pupils remains low.

Lesley Gannon, Cambridge University's widening participation co-ordinator, said: "It can actually be tough to persuade some pupils and parents that a degree from us will open up options and not close them down."

Pupils worry that if they want to go into banking, they should do a business studies degree, she said. "We tell them that maths can lead to lots of successful careers, not just being a mathematician.

"Summer schools like these are an important way of making sure we get the best pupils, whatever their background and ambitions."

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