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Education charity improves access to top universities

According to universities minister David Willetts, universities charging more than £6,000 for tuition will spend more than £620 million – 50 per cent more than they do already – on increasing the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the next few years. But Richard Gould, the Chief Executive of Villiers Park Educational Trust in Cambridgeshire, questions what this will accomplish. 

“Over the past 10 or so years governments have invested several billion to improve social mobility through trying to attract less advantaged students to leading universities. Yet statistics show that there has been insufficient change to justify the sums spent. A sustained positive impact on fair access is only possible if we address all factors that might prevent an able student from a less advantaged background from maximising their potential.”

A programme run by the charity that Mr Gould heads up was recently evaluated by researchers at the University of Sussex. The study shows that participating in the Villiers Park Scholars Programme, an intensive programme of activities and support for able students from less advantaged backgrounds, significantly improves the chance of gaining a place at a top university. Scholars are selected according to ability and need.

Nearly 77% of 43 Year 13 students involved in the Villiers Park Educational Trust’s Scholars Programme went on to a degree course in October 2011, nearly half of these at a Russell Group or 1994 Group university. These findings compare favorably with national data on Higher Education destinations published by the Sutton Trust for the period 2007 - 2009 which found that 64.2% of students nationally were accepted at a university, 17.8 at a more selective provider. Nationally, only two per cent of students at the most academically selective universities are from less advantaged households (annual income of £25,000 or less).

The Villiers Park Scholars Programme began in 2009 and currently involves 240 young people (in years 10 to 13) at schools and colleges in the relatively low-income areas of Hastings, Bexhill and Swindon. At some schools GCSE attainment was well below the national average when the programme commenced. Villiers Park provides scholars with ongoing support from a learning mentor, week-long residential classes in their chosen subject, visits to ‘top’ universities and help with university applications. Support and information is also made available to parents. Villiers Park also works with participating schools and colleges to help develop the everyday classroom experience for all young people.

A University of Sussex research team, led by Lecturer in Education Dr Louise Gazeley, evaluated the first two years of the four-year programme and found that the scholars were motivated by the residential experiences, intensive mentoring and university visits: “We also saw the schools and colleges identifying students with high academic potential from less advantaged backgrounds much more accurately, giving them better support and setting higher expectations.”

Nearly two-thirds of Villiers Park Scholars whose parent(s) had not been to university believed the programme had directly improved their progress and results. More than 78% of scholars saw a positive influence on their motivation to succeed. One scholar with no family history of higher education who began her university course last term said that she would have left college without completing her A-levels had it not been for the support of her learning mentor.

The Cambridgeshire-based Villiers Park Educational Trust expects even better results over the next two years for scholars who will have benefited from the full four years of the Scholars Programme.

“We anticipate still higher attainment and university access from the students who began the programme aged 14 and who will be completing their A-levels in 2012 and 2013,” said Richard Gould. “Our Scholars Programme is a successful vehicle to help students reach their full academic potential and gain places at leading universities. We hope to partner with several universities so we can roll our programme in more areas and make a big difference to social mobility in the UK.”


“This programme has had a major impact on young people with no family history of higher education,” said Professor Judy Sebba, one of the Sussex researchers.



Notes for editors


For full details of the Villiers Park Scholars Programme, see:

 The full evaluation report and executive summary are available by contacting Emily Fyson at Villiers Park: or 01223 872601

 Questions about the evaluation may be directed to Judy Sebba, Director or Research and Knowledge at the University of Sussex: or 07788 72457

Source of national data for entry to leading universities: Sutton Trust, 2011. Higher Education destination figures 2007-09 based on figures from the Department for Education and UCAS


By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Tuesday, 31 January 2012