An innovative university access scheme has reported excellent results, doubling the likelihood of bright disadvantaged youngsters accessing top universities.

The results of the first evaluation of the Reach for Excellence schemes at the University of Leeds, supported by the Sutton Trust and the Halifax, has shown that almost half (45%) of the first group of students to benefit from the project were admitted to research-led universities, compared to just one-fifth (21%) of similar students.

The programme was also found to boost the likelihood of students entering higher education in any form (87% compared to 65% of the comparator group) and to cement their aspirations towards further study. A summary of the main findings is attached. These will be discussed at a seminar this evening which will be addressed by David Willetts, Conservative Shadow Minister for Universities and Skills, and Michael Arthur, Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds and chairman of the Russell Group.

The innovative scheme supports bright disadvantaged youngsters from West Yorkshire over two years through a combination of advice sessions, a summer school, study skills and aspiration raising work. It aims not only to increase their chances of going to university, but also of accessing the most prestigious universities. Importantly, it is one of the few schemes in this area which has been evaluated against a control group of students with similar academic and socio-economic characteristics. The researchers followed 295 students, of whom 114 took part in the scheme and the remainder formed the control group.

The results of the evaluation come at an important time. University places are set to be frozen over the next few years and the money spent on work to widen participation to university is coming under increased scrutiny. This evidence shows that targeted outreach and support work does make a difference and – as the financial returns to degrees from leading universities are so high – makes sound economic sense too.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, commented: “This is encouraging news for all those who are interested in fair access to university. This thorough evaluation of the Reach for Excellence project shows that well designed and targeted programmes really can transform the expectations and outcomes of bright, non-privileged young people. Despite the current economic constraints, if we are genuinely interested in boosting this country’s shamefully low level of social mobility, we need to invest more, not less, in schemes like this. A research-led university remains the surest way to access sought-after and influential careers.”

Professor Michael Arthur, Vice Chancellor at the University of Leeds, said: “I am extremely proud of Reach for Excellence, which has enabled us to identify and help the brightest and best students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Without it many would not have had the opportunity or motivation to come to a research-intensive university like Leeds.”

Reach for Excellence students achieved better A-Level results than their peers from similar backgrounds, and are twice as like to go to a Russell Group university. The first cohort of students from the programme is now at university, and we are confident that they are on track to do as well, if not better, than students from more advantaged backgrounds.”

Notes to editors

Launched in 2007 and sponsored by the Halifax and Sutton Trust, the Reach for Excellence programme is an extended university outreach scheme that provides support for a group of local highly-able 16 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the aim of raising their chances of enrolling at a research intensive university such as the University of Leeds. The programme operates over a two year period, providing advice sessions and lectures, a summer school, university visits and individual mentoring. It will benefit 360 students overall, composed of three consecutive year cohorts. See for more information.

The evaluation of the programme will be launched on the 27 January at a seminar attended by university leaders, educationalists, access practitioners and policy makers. David Willetts, Conservative Shadow Minister for Universities and Skills, and Michael Arthur, Chair of the Russell Group and Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds, will address the seminar.

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