For students from disadvantaged backgrounds, accessing a university education can be problematic. Urban Scholars project aims to tackle these negative factors and provide high-quality opportunities for those who might have otherwise missed out

The aim of widening participation policy is to ensure that everyone with the potential to benefit from higher education (HE) should have the opportunity to do so. But although the total number of students participating in HE has grown, it seems this is mainly due to an increase in numbers of students from affluent backgrounds. This highlights a need for targeted interventions addressing particular issues for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Urban Scholars project based at Brunel University has provided high-quality opportunities and experiences for students and has been successful in tackling potentially negative factors such as attitudes, quality of learning, peer-group pressures and parents’ lack of knowledge of HE.

The project

The project involved students from inner-London state schools operating within areas of relative deprivation and significant levels of crime. It differed from other UK interventions in its length (a period of four years) and secondly in targeting students at an earlier age. The specific objectives were to:

  • design and evaluate a multi-faceted intervention programme to raise students’ academic achievement and aspirations
  • to offer a model for wider use, which could be replicated by practitioners in different settings and impact on policy and practice.

The selection of students for the programme posed a real challenge. Traditional methods of looking at test results identified only a small number of students, and teachers found it difficult to select pupils whose test performances had been either average or even below average for a programme for ‘gifted pupils’. (See box, below, for examples of the difficulties associated with identification of gifted students.)

Case studies: two students whose potential could have been missed

Shaun, a very capable 12-year-old student was described by his teacher as ‘having a policy of not participating in any form of tests (which later transpired to be the result of his reluctance to be engaged ‘in extra work being given to clever children’). His entrepreneurial intelligence was only brought to the attention of his teacher by his peers (with no malice intended, so we were told by the student) who pointed out that he was in fact a very capable student and had set up a homework club and charged pupils £5 each time for the correct solutions he sold them. This enabled Shaun’s teacher to take note of his potential rather than any test results. He could have been easily missed.

Asha’s talent was in languages although she had not been selected for the gifted and talented programme, as her ‘scores in mathematics were low’. Asha sent a detailed letter to her school’s gifted and talented coordinator, outlining her special interest and aptitude in writing poems and stories, one of which had already been published, pointing out that this was not known to her English teacher. This student had included samples of her work and a persuasive letter arguing why she should be selected for the school’s special programmes for the gifted. Asha’s self-nomination was shared with her teacher and this led to a reconsideration of her talent and to her obtaining membership of the gifted and talented group and the intervention programme.

The challenge of identifying students for the programme needed to be addressed and teachers were provided with guidance on identification of potential through consideration of:

  • Renzulli’s (1986) three-ring model, which emphasises indicators such as creativity and task commitment
  • Gardner’s (1983) theory of multiple intelligences
  • Sternberg’s (2000) view of giftedness as developing expertise.

In the first cohort, 80 students were recruited, from Year 8, in eight secondary schools in two urban areas of London. One school, situated in an area dominated by a high incidence of gun crimes and drug use, sent 20 students to attend the programme. Their environment, according to one of their teachers, often intruded on their consciousness so that every time they wrote a story, guns were introduced within the first paragraph.

The challenge of influencing young people’s identities as learners was not underestimated: many of the students selected held strong views about HE being ‘not their place’, had become disenchanted with school, developed negative images of studying and consequently were not achieving their potential.

The intervention programme

A multi-faceted programme involving university staff, undergraduate mentors and parents was designed to include:

  • critical thinking: encouraging the formulation of rational and realistic plans for the future
  • development of basic skills through ‘catch up’ programmes
  • raising motivation – acknowledgement of achievement, praise, prizes and rewards
  • problem-solving skills
  • parents’ days
  • outside speakers and professional mentors as role models
  • personal projects
  • working with achieving peers
  • training in presentation skills
  • undergraduate mentors for support and scaffolding
  • training in study skills and structured use of time.

The students were to stay on the programme for four years, attending Saturday sessions once a month and a summer school on university campus.


A range of quantitative and qualitative data was collected which provided convincing evidence of the success of the programme with the first cohort of students.

Changes in students’ attitudes and expectations about HE and careers, were evident through their comments and written evaluations. Students’ career choices, tracked through their schools, showed 46% more students intending to apply to universities than at the beginning of the programme.

Initially, of paramount importance to many of the students, was the knowledge of the activities of celebrities gleaned from television, the internet and magazines and interviews highlighted a range of attitudes:

  • ‘It is better to become a pop star; you get loads of money – more than what you get by becoming a teacher or a doctor.’
  • ‘University is not for the likes of us. My mother does not know what a university is all about and probably wants me to go out and work and get some money.’

Injecting realism into their plans for the future was a challenge, though the intention was not to crush their dreams. Gradually, staff began to see changes in the students’ perceptions about university education, positively influenced by the undergraduates who acted as mentors: ‘My mentor is studying psychology and it sounds very interesting. If you don’t know someone doing it, you don’t know, do you?’

Most students gained confidence, citing their personal projects and the eventual presentation to an audience as a major contributor to this development.

National tests at the age of 11 and 14 showed that 90% of the students who participated and completed the intervention programme either met or exceeded the targets set by the school. In national examinations at 16, a third of the students who had attended the intervention programme, achieved grades which were higher than those predicted by the schools.

Considerations for practitioners and policy makers

The issue of ‘submerged talent’ among inner-city students, who may not perform well in tests for all sorts of reasons, is a fundamental issue which requires analysis. Some of the lucky ones may be noticed for their potential, but it is likely that many are not selected to participate in special programmes. As university entrance requires good grades in national tests, teachers need to be made aware of the submerged talent concept and be trained to use non-traditional methods of identification.

Sustained effort
Drop-out rates were higher and attendance was poorer in the first year of the programme (15 students dropped out within the first six months and were replaced). Initially, students were reluctant to give up even one Saturday a month to attend the university programme, and many were unconvinced about its relevance to their lives.  It was only after the first six months of the programme that attendance improved.

Some of the reasons for wishing to stay on the programme, in the early stages, were also interesting: good lunch, meeting students from other schools and pleasing parents so as to get rewards from them for attendance.

It’s interesting to note that most of the programmes provided within the Widening Participation initiative consist of short interventions such as summer schools and one-day visits to universities; but these may not be as effective as longer, more sustained programmes in facilitating a change in aspirations and attitudes in students from areas of disadvantage.

Basic skills
There was a serious lack of basic skills for the majority of students – especially in mathematics and English – which needed to be addressed through a catch up programme. Interviews with the students provided some interesting insights. Lloyd told the mathematics tutor at the university on a Saturday:

‘But we haven’t been taught how to do long multiplication. That means we can’t do a lot of the work you give us. You see, our teacher left at Christmas and since then we have had seven different teachers. You see they don’t want to teach in our school because of problems. The last one left because someone threw a chair at her.’

Alison, who attends a different school, blamed her classmates for not being able to cope with some mathematics ideas. She explained: ‘You just can’t work properly in the classroom because of the noise and the fights. I teach myself some bits. My brother explains the hard bits of maths to me. Will I pass my exams, who knows?’

Role models
Listening to outside speakers from various professions made a significant impact on students. For example, in the first year of the programme, a visit from a doctor who lost her parents in a car crash and had to earn her medical school fees by singing in pubs in the evenings encouraged Sara to make a commitment and stay focused on her ambition to become a doctor.

Most parents of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds do want the best for their children, but their lack of knowledge and experience seemed to make them feel inadequate in providing the necessary support. The vast majority of parents responded to our questionnaire and attended evening meetings: many articulated strongly how pleased they were about the programme, believing that it gave their children opportunities which were denied to them.


  • Gardner, H (1983) Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books
  • Renzulli, J (1986) ‘The Three-ring Conception of Giftedness: A Developmental Model for Creative Productivity’, in Sternberg, RJ and Davidson, JE (eds) Conceptions of Giftedness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sternberg, R (2000) ‘Giftedness as Developing Expertise’, in Heller, K, Monks, F, Sternberg, R and Subotnik, R (eds) International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent. Oxford: Pergamon.

Professor Valsa Koshy is director of the Brunel Able Children’s Centre

Carole Portman Smith is director of the Urban Scholars programme

For further information.