An Oxford college has appointed the country's first "access fellow" - an academic dedicated to working with colleges and schools to prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds for university work.
The appointment is the latest development in a collaboration between BSix Brooke House Sixth Form College in Hackney, East London, and Pembroke College, Oxford. History don Peter Claus (pictured left) spent part of his working week in the college, teaching sixth-formers in a mock Oxford college room.
Now he has been appointed to work full-time on the Raising Aspirations programme, which is spreading to South Cheshire College and Ashton Sixth Form College in Greater Manchester. "I'm driving up the motorway a lot, to be honest," said Dr Claus.
Like BSix, both colleges will have a book-lined study where Dr Claus will teach a humanities course called Enlightenment and Romanticism: Making of the Modern World. Students will also join a summer school and the colleges have appointed a staff member to support students' university ambitions. "The grand idea is not just to give information and guidance to schools and colleges, but to intervene in a good way," Dr Claus said. "There are groups of students who long for a sense of independence in their studies.
"We hope that we will do what we've done in Hackney and get young people from non-traditional backgrounds applying for Pembroke and Oxford and Russell Group universities."
BSix saw a 500 per cent rise in admissions to Russell Group universities among its students following the introduction of the programme, although the college admits it started from a low base. Principal Ken Warman said he hoped all students would eventually be enrolled in a Raising Aspirations course.
Last year, 430 of BSix's 600 students joined the programme, which now covers more than 20 subject areas, from anthropology to social sciences, and involves 16 partner universities. Seventy students from nearby schools also took part.
Each sixth form or FE college is developing a subject specialism aimed at encouraging students in lesser-known academic disciplines. BSix has a classics centre, while Ashton is opening a theology centre and the new Connell Sixth Form College, a 16-19 free school supported by Manchester City Football Club, will have a centre for oriental studies.
Dr Claus' appointment comes as the government's social mobility adviser, Alan Milburn, recommended that universities put more resources into outreach work with schools and colleges, including sending academics to teach young pupils in deprived areas.
But Dr Claus said the Raising Aspirations programme differed from Mr Milburn's recommendations in one way: it did not support lowering the grade requirements for students from poorer backgrounds. "I don't want to lower the offer. I've always said, let's not lower the bar, it's not a good way to go," Dr Claus said. He said Mr Milburn's suggestion of guaranteeing interviews to students who had attended a summer school or a programme such as Raising Aspirations had more potential, however.
Spending on widening participation is predicted to reach pound;613 million by 2015. But Dr Claus said there were obstacles to university academics spending more time teaching in schools and colleges: their work was evaluated by the research they published, making it difficult for many other institutions to follow suit and create "access fellows".
"I'm supposed to do a day a week of research, but that's not happened yet," he said. "If we have an education secretary who wants academics to go into schools and colleges then we need a higher education secretary who understands that research-driven careers are not necessarily compatible."
Photo credit: Alamy