Access to leading universities: bridging the North-South divide

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“Everyone with the potential to benefit from higher education should have equal opportunity to do so.” It would be hard to find anyone who would disagree with this statement. Most would also agree that the most talented students should win places at the most competitive universities. Unfortunately, however obvious this seems, it is an ideal that is very far from being realised. 18 year olds from the most advantaged areas are more than six times more likely to study at one of the UK’s most selective universities (including Oxbridge) than those from more disadvantaged areas. Is this as a result of different levels of academic attainment? Only in part. To take one example, each year there are 5000 student from lower socio-economic background that win A*A*A at A level. 220 of those students are admitted to Oxford. Less well known is the systematic regional unfairness in access to leading universities; your region is a better predictor of whether you will reach a leading university than your social class or parents’ income. A child in London who has received free school meals is twice as likely to go to university as a similar child in the North of England. In Doncaster, disadvantaged pupils have less than two-thirds the chance of reaching a top-third university than disadvantaged students in the rest of England.
These stark facts should shock – and shame – us. And it was to address this injustice that the Linacre Institute was founded in 2014. Our unique approach begins by building a collaborative partnership with schools in areas of the north of England with low progression to university. Our flagship Reach Higher Programme supports students from those schools to fulfil their academic and personal potential. Crucially, we don’t just take students who have a perfect set of GCSEs; we are interested in students’ potential first and foremost. With the support of the Reach Higher programme, students with just one A* at GCSE have reached – and excelled – at Cambridge. Our ‘in-the-round’ selection process is designed to find out what students can do, not what they have already achieved. On the Reach Higher Programme, students attend two summer schools, which are (re)designed each year in a way that is highly personalised to the needs and interests of each student. The first summer school is designed to boost confidence, cultural capital and intellectual agility. The second provides expert, personalised, subject-specific, intensive tuition which stretches beyond the curriculum. Students receive support with admissions tests and interview practice and tailored one-on-one advice on university applications. Students are then supported with one-to-one online tuition sessions in Year 13. During Reach Higher, our students form a self-supporting community of curiosity, building life-long friendships and a new aspirational ‘normal’. By the end of the programme, students are truly “university ready”. So far, no Linacre students have dropped out of university.

A glowing UCAS STROBE Group in 2019 compared the outcomes of Linacre students with students from similar backgrounds and with similar GCSE results. It showed that Linacre’s work is revolutionising students’ university chances and judged the statistical significance of our impact to be ‘very significantly high’.

  • 52%of Linacre students reached the 12 most competitive universities, compared with 14% of their non-Linacre equivalents
  • 83% of Linacre students reached a Sutton Trust 30 University, by contrast, the expected figure was only 48%.
    Our students’ Oxbridge chances are also remarkable:
  • The UCAS report showed that a Linacre student was 27 times more likely to make an Oxbridge application and up to 63 times more likely to win an offer.
  • Since the charity started, an average of 44% of students have won Oxbridge offers compared to the national average of 20%. The expected rate in the control group was just 4%.

We know that our programme changes lives. As one parent said: “I can honestly say my daughter wouldn’t even have begun on this journey without the inspiration she received from Linacre, and her life is much richer for it (as is ours).” Now the opportunity is there for any comprehensive school in northern England to work in partnership with The Linacre Institute as we aim to double the number of students every year that can take advantage of this life-changing opportunity. Let’s bridge this divide together.

For further information and to discuss becoming a partner school with the Linacre Institute please contact Charles Rowett, Executive Director

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