Our Head of University Access and Digital, Jonny Tyndall, explores the evidence on summer schools and what we’ve learnt from our programmes.

The recent publication of TASO’s recent report Summer Schools in the time of COVID-19 was a welcome contribution to the evidence base on the efficacy of such programmes. The Sutton Trust has been running Summer Schools for 25 years. Over this time, we have supported over 35,000 high-attaining young people from less advantaged backgrounds both in-person and online. The publication of TASO’s report has encouraged us to reflect on the journey our Summer School programme has taken and the impact it has had, to hopefully provide some useful additions to the discussion.

As an evidence-led organisation we have undertaken a wide range of evaluations of Summer Schools over the years, using extensive survey data, national datasets and matched comparison groups with many thousands of student data points. These have led to some similar findings to TASO’s trial, but also some differences. Studies we have undertaken have shown that these programmes work and have greatly impacted students, unlocking their potential and supporting them to achieve their goals. Summer Schools’ status as the Trust’s flagship programme therefore remains in place with over 3,000 students attending one of 13 university summer schools across the UK this year.

Survey Data

Similar to findings in the TASO report, students applying to our Summer Schools are ambitious with high aspirations for themselves. However, they don’t always have the required skills or knowledge to access university, particularly high tariff institutions. Our Summer School programmes are designed to give students the skills and confidence to navigate the higher education system and make informed choices about university (especially the most selective universities, where the access gap is greatest), rather than address a lack of general aspiration. Previous research by the Sutton Trust has outlined that the admissions process can be complex and difficult to navigate, particularly for students who are less able to access support from elsewhere. Our Summer Schools provide what is often a missing piece for many students in terms of support and guidance with the HE system.

Evaluation by the Bridge Group found that 93% of our 2021 cohort were already on intent on applying to university, although only 18% of students were certain about which universities they would apply to. In addition, many students lack the confidence, or the skills needed to get in to their chosen university. Only 26% of students felt confident about doing so at baseline, however this rose to 54% on completion of the summer school. Skills and knowledge development are crucial to student success and so the programme focuses on areas including personal statements, student finance and academic skills. Across these areas we saw increases in knowledge and confidence of 24percentage points (pp), 23pp and 29pp respectively.

Our evaluations also show that young people who were accepted onto the programme (2,452 students in this evaluation) reported lower confidence and were less likely to be sure of their post-18 choices than those whose applications were unsuccessful (7,210 young people) which would suggest our Summer Schools are reaching those students who are more likely to benefit from participation in such a programme. 93% of the 3,274 student cohort met at least three of our five social mobility markers with 43% having been eligible for FSM and 75% being the first in their family to go to university and 27% living in areas with low progression to higher education (POLAR Quintile 1).

Sutton Trust Summer Schools are focussed on supporting students to access high-tariff universities given their historically wider access gaps and their positive employment outcomes. Like in TASO’s findings, we saw no change between the start and end of the Summer School in their overall intention to apply to university. However, programme participants were much more likely to plan on applying to a highly selective university – a 13 percentage point uplift. Once these students had gone through the process of applying to university, they were ultimately twice as likely to go on to enrol at a university than similar students.

Long term tracking

Alongside collecting survey data, we have undertaken several large evaluation projects using long term tracking data, to follow young people in their journeys beyond the programme.

Analysis of data from the Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT), undertaken by the Institute of Employment Studies, looked at outcomes for those who had successfully applied for a Summer School compared to those who did not get a place. As everyone had applied to this programme, all those included in the analysis  were similarly predisposed to apply for university. From this, we found significant differences in patterns of university access, once students’ background characteristics (such as academic attainment and eligibility for free school meals) had been taken into account. Students who took part in our 2018 programme were 45% more likely to start a degree than those who did not get a place on a Sutton Trust Summer Schools programme. They were also almost twice as likely as unsuccessful applicants to go on to attend a leading university.

Participants in our Summer Schools have been shown to achieve higher grades, be less likely to drop out and go on to have strong labour market outcomes. The Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) used HESA data tracking participants between 2007 and 2012 against a matched control group of unsuccessful applicants and found that they were five percentage points more likely to achieve a first. Further analysis from IES found that students who has taken part in a Summer School were less likely to drop out of university, with only 3% of the cohort doing so compared to the national average of 7%. HEAT data looking at a cohort of students between 2006 and 2016 found that 93% of programme participants from homes in the lowest socio-economic groups move to the highest after university – good evidence of social mobility beyond just accessing university.

These differences are visible compared to all students, but particularly compared to other students from less advantaged backgrounds. Summer Schools give students the necessary confidence and skills to make informed choices about their educational journeys whilst providing a sense of belonging and community between other people like them.

Online Summer Schools

Online delivery of Summer Schools was a necessity across the sector in 2020 and 2021 due to pandemic related restrictions. In partnership with Bloomberg, we successfully developed Sutton Trust Online, a digital platform, to house these programmes and are continuing to evaluate and learn more about the value of digital and hybrid delivery.

Digital delivery opens up huge areas of opportunity as interventions can reach more people at lower cost and – as referenced in the TASO report – are much easier for students with caring responsibilities or part time work to engage in. The ability to return to information or content following the Summer School has also been highlighted by students as very useful allowing them to cement learning.

Student outcomes across digital delivery were consistent in many areas to the last face-to-face programming in 2019. The exceptions were themes of belonging, comfort living away from home, comfort meeting new people and feeling informed about accommodation options. Whilst digital programmes have a lot of benefits, for the group of students we are working with, the ability to experience life on campus and meet current students appears to be important to long term success and feelings of confidence.

Further work is required to understand the impact of and desire for digital programmes in a world where face to face opportunities have returned. In 2020 students overwhelming preference for programme style was an intense in person residential, with the least popular option being a week long online programme.

We are continuing to evaluate a range of models on our Summer Schools this year encompassing face to face, hybrid and online only programmes. We are keen to share any findings from this work and collaborate across the sector to help shape the future of summer schools across the country.

Building the evidence base

While many of the students on our Summer Schools already intend to go to university, the confidence and skills that young people develop allow them to navigate the higher education system and make truly informed choices about their next steps. Our Summer Schools can provide that vital support and knowledge for young people that we know is so crucial, and we believe they are an important tool for widening access, particularly to the most selective universities.

We hope this blog – and the work we have built up over more than two decades – provides some useful additional evidence to the discussion.  As a sector we should continue to learn and evolve the support we provide to young people – so we very much welcome a renewed focus on the evidence behind Summer Schools and the impact they can have.

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