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'Home from home' help

Children in deprived areas often lack the parental support needed to get to university. But a project aims to change all that, discovers Mandy Garner

It's the end of a long talk on the Second World War at the Cabinet War Rooms. A grainy picture of a group of very young 1940s schoolchildren waving flags somewhat reluctantly flashes up. It's VE day. "Why do they look so puzzled?" asks Jo Hunt, head of education at the Cabinet War Rooms. "Because they've been in school and they're not happy," pipes up a boy from the back. Hunt explains that, although school might be a trial for some, the reason these children are not as ecstatic as their parents is that they have known nothing else but war, so they have no idea what peace is.

She has been explaining rations, evacuations and the sounds that doodlebug bombs make to a group of ten and 11-year-olds from St Clement and St James Primary School in west London. They are here as part of an innovative project to get schoolchildren from deprived areas interested in going to university. Into University is, according to the Sutton Trust (one of its main funders), the only project in the country that targets children as young as eight with information about university life and sustains that interest through to secondary school and beyond. The project, which is based in west London, has plans to expand nationally.

It has come a long way quickly. Although the St Clement and St James community project, where it is based, has been going for some time, Into University is four years old and caters for about 850 children a year from the most deprived schools in Kensington and Chelsea. The project offers focus weeks to secondary and primary-school students. These involve a week of intensive study on one subject, introducing them to how people might study at university. As part of the week, they will go to a university. "It's no good just telling them about university - they need to experience it," says Rachel Carr, a former university English lecturer who runs the project.

Another aspect of the programme is a study-support programme, which offers after-school tutoring and mentoring for schoolchildren from Mondays to Fridays - the kind of support many middle-class children get from their parents but take for granted. Most of the mentors are university students from Imperial College London, the London School of Economics, Goldsmiths, University of London, and University College London. The aim is to draw young people in through the focus weeks or even through events run by the community centre, such as workshops for the Notting Hill Carnival, and then entice them into the academic support programme. "It's no good just offering a one-off experience of university," Carr says. "That won't change people's lives."

It's an idea that seems to work. Carr shows pictures of Sandra, who came into the project through a science focus week and progressed to the study support and mentoring programme. She is now on a free bursary at Rugby School. Angie came into the project through the Notting Hill arts workshops and went on a focus week. She has just finished her first year at university.

The setting for the project is very important. Although it is based at a former school, it has been set up to have a different feel from a school. The playground has been converted into a garden with plants dividing it into different sections. To get to the after-school support area, you have to go past some of the Notting Hill Carnival costumes, including a giant giraffe. The study room is open plan and there are pictures of all the students on the walls. On each the students have written a bit about themselves and their goals. There is a star chart that measures their progress. Rewarding good behaviour is at the heart of the Into University project. The aim is to be a "home from home", not to do work that schools should be doing. "We are trying to give the children the help parents would like to give them," says Carr, adding that many of the parents will not have been to university and do not know the terminology or have the expectations that those who have been might have. Some have lots of children and cannot give each one the concentrated time they need; others have English as a second language. Low self-esteem is another problem passed down the generations.

Carr says 35 students at one of the local failing schools were asked to list the greatest obstacle to them progressing to university: "Three quarters named members of their family. They said things such as 'my mum is always running me down'. A lot of young people are not seizing the opportunities they have. They don't have enough self-esteem. Something is not happening, and survey after survey shows a direct link between inner-city deprivation and underachievement."

Into University works with the Gifted and Talented groups at local schools, but Carr says it is often the people just below that group in terms of ability whom they want to recruit. She talks of problems such as lack of access to a computer and not having the cultural experiences that broaden your horizons and play a crucial part in young people's ability to achieve.

Carr emphasises that the support programme, which is about to be externally evaluated, is not just about academic success. "It's also about building relationships," she says. "Undergraduates who have come through the project come to see us in the holidays or stay in touch by e-mail." Part of the way strong relationships are built is through a high staff-to-student ratio, especially for secondary-school pupils. "Sessions are like the old-fashioned university tutorial," Carr says.

Come September, the secondary after-school programme will move closer to a university experience. A new room is being built at the front of St Clement's Church attached to the project (the vicar is chair of the community programme's board). It is designed in part by the students, and will feature the comfy sofas that have become a key feature of university interiors. The high altar will be converted into a lectern.

Other new projects for September include an apprenticeship programme funded by the JP Morgan Foundation and the Sutton Trust. The idea, which comes from the US, is to get volunteers from business to teach children about some aspect of their job that they love - for example, the stock market.

Also starting soon are secondary transfer pilot workshops to help ease the transition from primary school to the first year of secondary school - the point at which most children's academic achievement dips dramatically.

And then there are the long-term expansion plans. They came about after members of the community team went to Boston to look at other out-of-hours projects last November. They were particularly taken with the Citizen School network and became convinced they could replicate it. In February, they held a symposium with a range of people, including someone from No 10's policy unit, a university vice-chancellor and Sir Peter Lampl, head of the Sutton Trust, and a decision was made to go forward with the project. The plan is to open two centres in London by January 2008, with a view to going national by 2010.

Carr says the aim is to inspire children around the country to want more for themselves. On the focus week outings, she says some of the children are amazed to see famous London landmarks such as Buckingham Palace, which they have seen only on television before, even though they live in the same city. "One year group saw the London Eye. They were so excited," she says.

"It's about raising their aspirations. That's why we have to start early. By 14 it is too late."

WHERE CHURCHILL LIVED WITH THE RATS

At least it's cool in the Cabinet War Rooms. Outside the sun is merciless and the guards in front of the Foreign Office are wilting. In the underground government offices, where Winston Churchill served out the war years, all is dark and clammy.

For the 16 children from St Clement and St James Primary School, the warren of offices is a place of explorationand discovery.

They have already spent a day making a cake based on Second World War rations and listening to the stories of people who were evacuated from London. Tomorrow they will visit HMS Belfast .

Now they split up into three teams and are set loose on Churchill's former home. They click their audio-phone buttons in unison and listen avidly to the commentary - all except Matin, who is busy taking pictures on his mobile.

They don't show much emotion, however, until they are told that the administrators had to sleep two storeys underground with the rats. "What would you do if you had to sleep underground?" asks the tape. "I'd stand on the stairs because of the rats," says Akouri. "I'd eat the rats," chips in Matin.

They are not impressed by the Cabinet members' sparse bedrooms - except that of Winston's wife, Clementine, which has a comfortable chair and a colourful bedspread. "She's got a temperature thing too," says Buster, pointing at a hi-tech electronic gauge. "I don't think that was there in her day," someone mutters.

Although they don't seem outwardly very excited, when they write their comments at the end of the tour they clearly got a lot out of it. "It was wicked and brilliant," Buster writes. "I can't believe Churchill lived here," Akouri says.

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