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A-level Results Day 2017: Supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds to reach top universities

A-level Results Day comes around again, with thousands of students celebrating not only their A-level achievements but also confirmation of a place at university.

But for some, the cause for celebration is even more compelling. These are the students and their parents who possibly never expected to go to university, who are first in their family or community to go, and who are taking the plunge into a world that they are even less familiar with than other nervous freshers. I’m talking about those who come from lower-income families, where university isn’t the rite of passage that it is for many others; where attendance is the exception not the rule.

It’s easy to underestimate just how hard it is to develop the motivation and resilience that’s needed to land the grades to secure a place at one of the UK’s top universities - and all the more so when you don’t have immediate access to the kind of social and educational capital that comes as standard in homes with graduate parents.  

Last year, research from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) showed that children who knew from the age of 10 or younger that they wanted to go to university were two-and-a-half times more likely to get a place in a higher tariff university. Further research from Ucas also revealed that you are six times less likely to make it to a top third university if you are from one of the UK’s least affluent households.

Many column inches dissect the gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of access to university. But the evidence is clear – the biggest barrier to success is attainment in school

No-one seriously doubts the ability of children just because they come from poorer backgrounds, but the lack of role models in their families and communities, the fear of the unknown, and low aspirations can all work against their potential being realised.

Support with the Ucas personal statement, and making aspirational but realistic applications, are a regular part of Year 13 school life for many, but schools that serve disadvantaged communities often need to pour their resources into closing the attainment gap between the poorest and more affluent young people – meaning that support for Ucas applications and extra help in sixth form are a luxury they cannot always afford.

Clearly this is an ongoing challenge, and one that will not be solved overnight. It will take input from schools, universities, policymakers and charitable organisations to make sure that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to access the top universities and the best opportunities in life.

Since 2008, The Access Project, of which I am proud to have recently become Chair of Trustees, has been working to reach these students; to ensure that they receive the support they need to overcome these barriers

Prospective students receive in-school support in making their choices, their applications and to go on open day visits to familiarise themselves with the reality of university life.  In addition they receive one-to-one tutoring to help boost their grades in subjects they need most help with.

This year, over 1000 pupils from low-income backgrounds have received support from The Access Project in 21 schools in London and the West Midlands. Just under 80 per cent of the students we support have received offers from the top third selective universities and over 50 per cent are on track to attend Russell Group institutions.

But from this September, as a result of support from Nesta’s Second Half Fund, the charity will be able to reach more students than ever before, as it expands into a new region in the East Midlands.  

The Second Half Fund, which is targeted at mobilising the time and talents of people aged 50 and above, has allowed The Access Project to develop new ways to reach this often un-tapped resource of expert tutors. Through this initiative, The Access Project is able to explore new channels for volunteer recruitment, including working more closely with professional bodies and retiree networks, and also developing print and online marketing campaigns. It has also enabled the charity to champion and support existing volunteers in this demographic by creating ‘halo’ volunteers, or ambassadors, who are already important components of the work the charity does.

Next year, we are determined to make sure The Access Project makes its biggest impact yet.

The Access Project is currently recruiting volunteer tutors for the 2017-18 academic year (particularly in English, Maths and Science GCSE and A-level) who will tutor a student in their place of work for one hour per week during term time. All volunteers will receive training and access to multiple online resources on the subject they will tutor. If you would like to offer a young person this potentially life-changing academic support, visit our sign-up page here.

Mary Curnock Cook is former Chief Executive of Ucas and current Chair of Trustees at The Access Project