Our Head of University Access and Digital, Jonny Tyndall, outlines the learnings from seven years of running our pre-16 university programme, Sutton Scholars. 

The attainment gap between more and less advantaged students grows throughout a young person’s time a school and has been a persistent issue in education in the UK. Our sister charity, the Education Endowment Foundation, was established to find out what works when it comes to improving attainment for students from less well-off backgrounds, undertaking numerous trials of interventions and publishing the Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Recently this focus on attainment-raising for pre-16 students has also been taken up by the Office for Students (OFS) which has been encouraging universities to prioritise this as part of their Access and Participation Plans. Having recently finished delivering a multiyear programme for under 16s with university partners which had improving attainment as a key aim, we wanted to share our learnings. 

Sutton Scholars was launched as a pilot programme due to concerns that too many high-achieving pupils from low- and middle-income families were being lost in the secondary school system and were not in a position to apply to leading universities by the time they reached sixth form. Our Missing Talent report found that there were around 7,000 students each year who were in the top 10% of achievers nationally at the end of year six, who five years later received a set of GCSE results that placed them outside the top 25% of pupils.  

Sutton Scholars was first delivered in 2014, with activities designed to inform participants about university education and motivate students to continue their academic trajectory. It was delivered in partnership with the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, the University of Nottingham, the University of Warwick and University College London. Programme design differed between universities with different age groups targeted, different lengths of programme and different numbers and types of activities delivered, covering subject tasters, residentials, group work, skills development, and parental engagement.  

The University of Nottingham and the University of Cambridge both worked with local target schools with cohorts of students identified by teachers. Whilst the Sutton Scholars programmes worked with different age groups (Y7-Y9 for Nottingham and Y9 -Y11 for Cambridge), these were part of longer-term programmes that supported widening participation students all the way through secondary school with other support available for the schools. 

The University of Warwick, University College London and Imperial College London took a different approach. Students applied to the programme in either year 8 or year 7, with the programme lasting two or three years. The University of Warwick and University College London developed projects for students to complete in groups in each year of the programme, whilst Imperial College London’s programme was focussed on building skills in coding. 

What we learnt 

Throughout the seven years that the programme ran we learnt a number of lessons. From an operational point of view, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to programme design, and this is particularly the case when working with younger students. There are different educational landscapes, opportunities and challenges in different parts of the country which require different approaches to programming. These can range from base levels of attainment to appetite of schools or families to engage to very practical things like transport. Because of this, we recognised the need to work with and listen to our university partners about their local context to design a programme within our parameters that was right for their local communities. 

Secondly, whilst we had a clear vision, mission and theory of change for the programme, the need to be responsive to local context meant that it was very difficult to operationalise these different approaches and make direct comparisons between programmes. Whilst we have built up a lot of evidence through participant, parent, teacher and practitioner feedback of what worked and didn’t work, it was not always possible to translate this between delivery partners. 

However, there were some key takeaways from across the different pre-16 university programmes: 

  • Young people found speaking to current students about their journeys to university valuable. 
  • On-campus activities, and particularly visits to other universities beyond the host institution, were identified as key elements of the programme appreciated by participants, parents and teachers alike.  
  • Sessions where parents and guardians could attend and learn about university education as well as see what their children were doing on the programme were associated with better programme engagement. 
  • Online delivery works less well for younger students. Some of the cohorts ran during the pandemic and so delivery had to be shifted online. Whilst great resources were made by the delivery teams including interactive content, videos and self-guided projects, uptake was much lower for these digital activities rather than face-to-face events. 

Evaluation findings 

Recent analysis by NFER of one small university cohort of students found that Sutton Scholars participants had a significantly higher probability of achieving at least five good GCSEs compared with a matched comparison group of similar students. Whilst this is encouraging, the evaluators noted that it wasn’t possible to make a causal link between programme participation and grades achieved due to the small number of sessions (ten over two years) and other background contextual factors that may have contributed to the students’ academic trajectory. Moreover, this analysis didn’t control for students’ motivation which may suggest why students who voluntarily participated in an extra-curricular educational activity achieved higher grades. 

Separate analysis of attitudinal surveys across university cohorts by NFER found that the programme was successful at delivering information, advice, and guidance about university with students developed knowledge in key areas. By the end of the programme, most students knew what a university is, knew what you do at university, and knew where you can go to university. The programme also increased students’ knowledge of university accommodation options, extra-curricular activities, what subjects you can study at university and what the most selective universities are like. 

However, students’ attitudes to their future educational plans at the beginning and end of the programme produced mixed results. Different university cohorts showed different direction of travel when it came to assessing likelihood of applying to university. Cost of university and not getting the grades were the main reasons students gave for possibly not attending university in the future. On completion of the programme, around two thirds of students felt confident that going to university was a future option for them, though for two university cohorts, students were less likely to agree with this at the end of the programme than the beginning. 

What next for the Sutton Trust and pre-16 

The decision to stop running Sutton Scholars was a difficult one to make, given that there is a clear need to work with and support younger students. However, we felt we weren’t adding value to existing university programmes, which is where we feel the Sutton Trust can have greatest influence. 

We know that too many previously academically high-achieving students from less advantaged backgrounds aren’t in a position or don’t want to apply to one of our post-16 programmes. Reasons for this can range from levels of attainment, lack of information at a young enough age about future options, to having already decided university isn’t for them. 

Going forward, we are exploring the different areas of need for pre-16 students and what support they may need, focussing on where we can add value and how we can influence larger number of students at key transition points. This could involve working with teachers and schools to improve information, advice and guidance, signposting young people to existing successful initiatives, or facilitating conversations to understand what is currently working.    

We are always keen to convene people and organisations and collaborate to create new programmes and interventions that can create real impact for our target group of students. If you’ve got an idea, please get in touch. 

We would like to thank all the university partners, funders and evaluators who made the delivery of Sutton Scholars possible. 

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