The case of the Tyneside teenager who was refused a place at Oxford has sparked a national debate about access to higher education. Leeds university is trying to break down class barriers by sending undergraduates into the city's schools to raise expectations. Elaine Williams reports.
Kevin Ulaya sits looking glumly into the computer on the desk before him. Having arrived in England from Tanzania speaking no English, he is feeling defeated by his first few days in an inner-city Leeds secondary school. Suddenly, he hears from behind a voice speaking softly to him in Swahili. Amazed, Kevin turns around, eyes shining, a smile beaming from ear to ear, to see Lara Zibarras, a white, Swahili-speaking Kenyan studying at Leeds university, who has come to help out in the school.
David Robinson, curriculum director of St Michael's Catholic college, a 470-strong 11-16 voluntary-aided comprehensive, recalls the occasion with enormous pleasure. "I will never forget how his face lit up as he turned around when Lara began to speak," he says. "Having that contact has made all the difference to how he has settled into the school."
Lara now helps Kevin with his IT work. But her support doesn't end there. When she leaves university, she intends to work as an educational psychologist and has been co-opted to lend a hand with St Michael's Fresh Start programme, which started last September, working with parents and pupils who have had difficulties in primary school.
Lara Zibarras is one of 25 to 30 student volunteers David Robinson has been drawing in to support the school for each of the past eight years. St Michael's is situated in the city's university district, one of the most socially deprived areas in the country. It attracts a hefty chunk of the city's pound;8 million social regeneration budget funding.
Mr Robinson has no reservations about taking advantage of St Michael's proximity to Leeds university and its student tutoring service, Campus Connect. He believes the tie-up makes a significant difference to the cultural and academic health of the school, which is enjoying a steady rise in the number of pupils gaining five GCSE passes (from 24 per cent in 1998 to 27 per cent last year).
This year, the Campus Connect scheme will place more than 200 students in 27 Leeds schools, supporting pupils in the classroom and after-school clubs, volunteering as mentors and running campus and science trails around the university.
"This is about bringing in young developing professionals in all fields to work with pupils," says Mr Robinson. "We're a small staff and an ageing staff - old teachers who have been here far too long. Our kids like to see these students, to hear them and take on board what they say. They bring youth and cultural diversity. In some cases, there's just a few years' difference between pupils and students. They've far more street cred than we'll ever have.
"But it's also about breaking down barriers. Inner-city kids believe higher education is for other people. By rubbing up against university students for long periods in school, they begin to see possibilities for themselves.
"These students do have an impact. When you have the quality of people we have and put them one-to-one with our kids, there is no way they cannot have an impact."
Humphrey Casely-Hayford, 15, St Michael's school captain, spent a week last September handing out Campus Connect leaflets around the university, explaining to students why pupils like himself would benefit from their help. "All our teachers are good and you can talk to them," he says, "but sometimes it can be easier to learn from students because they are only a few years older and they give you information in a way you can relate to and understand.
"I was unsure about the idea of going to university myself, but speaking to students who come here has encouraged me."
Campus Connect celebrated its first birthday with a party for hundreds of students and pupils last month. Described by one head as "the world's best brokerage system", it is funded through the social regeneration budget and employs five staff, two of them full-time. And where other universities are experiencing substantial falls in the number of students volunteering for mentoring and tutoring schemes - largely due to economic hardship, which forces many to take part-time jobs - Leeds has experienced an increase. Staff put this down to successful marketing and the positive feedback they have received from the city's schools.
Among the several hundred students St Michael's has taken on over the past few years were a pharmacy undergraduate who ran a drugs awareness programme - "She got a coursework project for her degree, we got an extra body" - and Dan Weaver ("Dan the Man" as he came to be known), a computer and maths student who commandeered 12 of his peers to run an after-school computer club and train staff. He also organised an IT summer school at the university for St Michael's pupils.
Students help run a dance club and an after-school literacy support club, Read-It. Four students on a French degree course are helping final-year GCSE pupils with French conversation, and several are helping design technology pupils with their projects. "The quality of the project work is better than it has ever been," says Mr Robinson. He believes the volunteers are giving children the one-to-one support they desperately need. In return, students get accreditation through the university and a diploma from the Government's Millennium Volunteers scheme.
"As far as I am concerned it's a win-win situation," he says, "and in education that is rare." It is even worth the "nightmare" of co-ordinating this large group of extra new staff at the start of every year. "I give students my mobile, home and work numbers," he says. "Getting hold of them can be murder. But once I've paired them up with teachers the thing usually takes off."
Ian Lancashire, a second year maths and economics student, helps out at St Michael's using maths with IT and takes a top set maths group for extension work. The experience has made him want to become a maths teacher. "I wanted to get down to a job and help out, and volunteering provides the opportunity," he says. "I like working in the inner city. There are difficult social backgrounds but a lot of intelligent students here. Cheeky little kids take the mick out of my tie. I have horrid dress sense and pupils mock me for it, but we have a lot of fun. I have a lot more respect for teachers now when I see all the extra work they put into lessons."
Susan Flowers, a learning support assistant at St Michael's who organises the Read-It club, says she couldn't cope without the students' help. "They are very willing and their presence gives a different atmosphere to the club. The children can call the students by their first names and they love seeing younger, different faces. And the students have their own ideas for things we can do, which is good."
Carla Stimpson, 21, an English and classical literature student in her final year, is a volunteer assistant in the Campus Connect office, and last year helped with the choir and general teaching at Victoria primary school, as well as working at Leeds college of technology. She says her presence in a reception class helped give children the personal attention they needed. "It seemed to give the children more confidence. Having an extra person to spend a bit more time with them brought them out of themselves." She feels she also encouraged students at the technology college to think about university as a next step. "I've only been out of school for three years myself," she says, "and because of that it helped them to see what it's all about, that it's not a scary place."
Ross Cleeton, a 23-year-old structural engineering postgraduate student, has been working two hours a week at Mount St Mary's Catholic high school, an 11-16 comprehensive, teaching science and helping with outdoor pursuits. "I had really good science teachers at my own school who encouraged me," he says, "and I wanted to give something back."
Having worked in industry, he wants to demonstrate to pupils how science is applied in the real world. "I wanted to show what I did in my job, and how what you learn in class builds up and has real application," he says. "It has also been a benefit to me. I'm a bit gullible and the kids have played me up, but I crush concrete most of the time, so it was good to get out of my lab and meet real people."
Each year, 7,000 students from universities and colleges provide tutoring and mentoring support to pupils in around 2,000 schools through the Learning Together network. The scheme aims to raise aspirations and achievement while broadening students' experience and employability.
As part of the network, the Tyneside amp; Northumberland Students into Schools project has placed 550 students from Newcastle university and Northumbria university into 170 schools; 400 students from Queens university, Belfast, and Ulster university are placed annually in schools; and York university involves more than 200 students a year.
London universities and colleges place more than 700 students a year. In Manchester 125 students from four universities support literacy in primary schools. Cambridge university runs Science and Engineering for Kids, where postgraduate researchers give primary children experience of science experiments.
Medical school students at Manchester university act as mentors to inner-city comprehensive pupils, and 100 other students from the university are involved in the Targeted Access scheme, working with secondary pupils on study skills, revision and HE awareness. Trainee teachers at Leeds metropolitan university act as mentors to sixth-formers at Ryburn Valley high school.
For more information on the Learning Together network, tel: 020 7643 1324