Can new scheme make Oxbridge dreams a reality for Cumbrian students?

A new partnership is launching to help disadvantaged students in Cumbria secure a place at the UK's best universities.

Around one in seven Cumbrian schoolchildren are eligible for free school meals. Those pupils are three times less likely to get into a top university than those who are not eligible.

The new programme links West Coast Sixth Form, a collaboration between Whitehaven and Workington academies, with one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world - Oxford University.

Raising aspirations

Whitehaven and Oxford lie three hundred miles apart. Yet for some of West Cumbria's brightest young minds, the prospect of studying at the UK's oldest university can seem a world away.

Sophie is in Year 12. She's from Whitehaven and wants to study law, but says getting there sometimes feels like it's a step too far.

Sophie is a Year 12 student at West Coast Sixth Form Credit: ITV Border

She said: "As I got older, I realised that neither of my parents went to university, and because of where we are in the country, it's quite hard to get to those Russell Group universities and those top universities. And so it kind of became more of a dream rather than a goal. It was like something I'd love to do, but I didn't think I was going to do it."

To try to raise aspirations, a new programme gives students like Sophie a direct link to one of the very best universities around.

Over the next three years, 80 students from West Coast Sixth Form will benefit from tutoring and mentoring through national charity The Access Project and a college at Oxford University.

According to the university admissions service UCAS students receiving this support are two to four times more likely to go to a top university.

New solution for an old problem?

Dr Claire Craig leads The Queen's College at Oxford. Its founder was from near Cockermouth and now the college wants to encourage students here to follow in his footsteps.

She said: "We're constantly searching for the brightest and the best and the North West is still quite underrepresented."

Dr Claire Craig is Provost of The Queen's College at Oxford University Credit: ITV Border

Although the problem of underrepresentation of disadvantaged students at top universities is not new, Dr Craig believes this approach is different.

She said: "It was a new discovery to find The Access Project that we're working with who've got these really you know, they really looked at what they can do in-depth in individual schools. So it's a new way of working for us. It's not new to be here. It's not new to be looking for bright young people, but it's a new way of doing it."

'Not to be underestimated'

Nigel Youngman is the headteacher at The Whitehaven Academy. He said: "We are in a beautiful location, but the reality is that we're many miles away from lots of universities. So this gives the opportunity for our students to see that they deserve to apply to the finest universities in the country, and they're capable. So to have Queens College saying we want you to apply to us is is not something that should be underestimated."

The charity behind the programme, The Access Project, says it's confident it has the tools to help pupils succeed. Nathan Sansom is the CEO.

Evie from Workington is in Year 13. She has her sights set on studying medicine next year. She believes the extra support on offer will help her peers better themselves.

Evie is a Year 13 student from Workington Credit: ITV Border

She said: "It gives everyone the confidence like there's no reason that just because you live here, you shouldn't be able to go somewhere like Oxbridge. So I think the programme that's being introduced further down here where people would just think they've got no chance of getting opportunities. It's really good. It gives everyone the push."

While Oxbridge, or university in general, isn't for everyone, for youngsters in West Cumbria looking to pursue higher education this extra support might just give them another degree - of belief.