Sneaky peek at seats of learning

20th July 2007 at 01:00
Every year, St Andrews University invites 90 of the best high school pupils to sample its wares.Sue Leonard finds out more

eleven students are listening intently to Donovan McAbee explain the meaning of "noumenon" before attempting to deconstruct a Charles Simic poem. They are a little reticent in offering their interpretation of the poet's musings, but warm up with some gentle persuasion from Mr McAbee and begin to offer some interesting and insightful views.

It's not surprising that they feel self-conscious because, although the creative writing class is taking place at the University of St Andrews, they are not under- graduates. They are among 90 of Scotland's brightest high school pupils who have been selected to take part in the Sutton Trust Summer School, which offers a one-week peek into university life.

The scheme, now in its sixth year, is aimed at S5 pupils capable of winning a place at a top university such as St Andrews, but who may not have previously considered applying. They include pupils with no family history of university attendance, those whose parents are in non-professional occupations or those who attend schools with virtually no history of sending pupils on to higher education.

The summer school, funded by the Sutton Trust, an educational charity founded by philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl, plays a key role in the St Andrews commitment to widening access. With 11 applicants chasing every place and an average requirement of two As and two Bs at Higher level, Scotland's first university, and the UK's third oldest, is keen to ensure that the brightest pupils from all walks of life at least apply to study there.

"The academics want to see a diverse group of people in front of them," says Fraser Keir, director of Scottish recruitment and access. "There have been rumours about St Andrews being too elite, too posh. We want to make people aware we are accessible. People should not confuse elitism with high quality."

The summer school has proved so popular that the number of places was increased by a third this year to inspire youngsters to aspire to the best seats of learning in the UK. This year, 160 applied, which requires pupils to have gained five Credit level passes.

They have come from schools across Scotland, including St Thomas of Aquin's High in Edinburgh, St Ninian's High in Glasgow, Dornoch Academy in Sutherland and Tiree High in Argyll.

As well as lectures covering English, physics, medicine and classics, students attend seminars on how to choose a good university; writing an effective UCAS statement; funding their way through university; and post-university careers opportunities.

Last year, 36 pupils who attended applied to St Andrews; 26 were offered places and 15 accepted.

Nicola Trevis, a pupil at Glenrothes High in Fife whose parents did not go to university, hopes to win a place to study French, Italian and international relations. The summer school helped the 17-year-old identify what she does not want to study. Her original plan had been to take classics with two modern languages, but seminars this week have made her realise that learning about Ancient Greece and Rome is not for her. "It's interesting, but not very exciting," she concluded.

Graeme McKelvie, a pupil at Springburn Academy in Glasgow, was also won over by what he saw and heard. He had thought he would go to Glasgow University until he found out about the summer school at St Andrews. "It's been good to experience the teaching and see the facilities," says the 16-year-old, whose parents are both unemployed due to health-related problems.

Graeme, who likes the feel of the town, is one of 30 boys selected. That boys make up only a third of the group reflects a number of factors, says education Mike Johnson, liaison officer: "It takes up their holidays and there is a perception among boys that it does not relate to them at this stage."

Another critical factor is educational attainment. "We had a fair number of boys on application, but they did not match the academic requirement," he says.

It's not all work, though. After a morning of lectures, the students head off to the sports centre or one of the beaches that border this rural medieval town. "This week has been really good," says Nicola. "It made me realise that I want to be a student."

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