What is it? Summer schools are a form of on-campus outreach comprising a range of activities designed to immerse participants in an experience of higher education (HE), including workshops, taster sessions and social activities.
Evidence? There is little causal research on the efficacy of summer schools to widen participation. Recent analysis conducted by TASO in collaboration with the Higher Education Access Tracker suggests that participation in summer schools is associated with higher GCSE grades and HE progression and these results align with existing studies showing that students who attend a summer school express higher confidence and aspiration at the end than at the beginning.
Should HE providers use summer schools to widen participation? Despite associations between summer school participation and positive student outcomes, currently there is insufficient evidence to say that summer schools are an effective tool to widen participation because existing evidence is not ‘causal’ (in other words, it can’t tell us definitively that the intervention is effective). It is plausible that summer schools attract participants who are most likely to go on to HE, regardless of the summer school. Given the time- and resource-intensive nature of summer schools, there is strong case for seeking more information on the efficacy versus other less intensive approaches. TASO is running a research project to produce more evidence on the efficacy of this approach.
What is this intervention?
Summer schools are on-campus outreach activities, designed to expose students to the HE experience. The aim is to equip individuals with knowledge of how to apply to HE and increase their confidence and interest in applying.
Summer school programmes vary. Programmes may offer participants the chance to meet academic staff and students, attend university-style lectures, take part in workshops and projects, and get a taste of the HE experience. Many, but not all, involve a residential element where students stay in student accommodation. Some summer schools, or elements of summer schools, focus on encouraging take-up of a specific subjects or entry to a particular profession (such as medicine).
This page focuses on the overall impact of attending a summer school. For more advice on the constituent activities that might be part of a summer school programme, see our other pages on mentoring, counselling and role models and Information, Advice and Guidance.
What is the target group?
The advice on this page is based on summer schools designed to address issues faced by students from disadvantaged and under-represented groups, including:
- Students from lower-socioeconomic status groups
- Disabled students
How effective is it?
There are a small number of studies on the efficacy of summer schools to widen participation. Studies find that summer schools are positively correlated with an increase in confidence and aspirations. Theses tend to find that summer schools are positively correlated with an increase in confidence and aspirations. Three studies find a positive correlation with application to and acceptance by HE providers (HEFCE, 2010; Hoare & Man, 2011; TASO, 2021). Most recently, analysis conducted by TASO in collaboration with the Higher Education Access Tracker found that taking part in summer schools is associated with higher KS4 attainment and higher HE progression.
However, we must be careful about how we interpret the evidence mentioned above. Overall, the evidence can only tell us that there seems to be a positive association between summer schools and student outcomes – it cannot tell us definitively that the activities are having an impact (i.e. they cannot provide ‘causal evidence’).
This is because the students who take part in summer schools are likely to be systematically different from those who don’t – for example, even if the students look similar in terms of their observable characteristics (e.g. gender, prior attainment), they are likely to have different levels of motivation. It is possible that students participating in summer schools would be more likely to participate in HE compared to non-participants, even in absence of the summer school. So, without causal research, we risk overestimating the efficacy of the summer schools.
What features seem to be important?
We do not have a strong enough evidence base to make claims about the most important features of summer schools.
What don’t we know
Currently there is no research which can give us ‘causal evidence’ on the impact of summer schools, either here in the UK or elsewhere. This means that, although we can see that students who attend summer schools tend to have better outcomes in terms of aspirations/attitudes, we cannot say whether this is because summer schools are effective, or because only the most motivated and/or supported students tend to attend.
Given that these are large-scale, high-cost and resource-intensive interventions, we should expect summer schools to have a bigger impact than less intensive outreach approaches. More evidence on the relative scale of the impact of summer schools versus other approaches would help HE providers understand how best to structure their overall outreach offering.
Where does the evidence come from?
The existing evidence used to inform this page is predominantly from the UK and uses surveys to capture the attitudes/aspirations of students before and after taking part in summer schools (six studies, including four evaluation reports confidentially shared with TASO). There have a small number of UK studies that suggest students who take part in these activities have better outcomes, in terms of aspirations/attitudes and HE participation, than those who don’t, by using ‘comparison’ groups of non-participants (three studies).
We have focused on evidence produced in the last 10 years and, in the case of UK-based evidence, since the student finance reforms were introduced in 2012. Older evidence has been included if is exceptionally relevant.
The key references are given below.
Studies which use comparator groups:
Download our summary report with HEAT: An investigation into the relationship between outreach participation and KS4 attainment/ HE progression.
Hoare, T., & Mann, R. (2011). The impact of the Sutton Trust’s Summer Schools on subsequent higher education participation: A report to the Sutton Trust. University of Bristol, Widening Participation Research Cluster.
HEFCE. (2010). Aimhigher summer schools: Participants and progression to higher education. Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Studies which use pre/post surveys
Hatt, S., Baxter, A., & Tate, J. (2009). ‘It was definitely a turning point!’ A review of Aimhigher summer schools in the south west of England. Journal Of Further And Higher Education, 33(4), 333-346. https://doi.org/10.1080/03098770903266034
Lei, J., Calley, S., Brosnan, M., Ashwin, C., & Russell, A. (2018). Evaluation of a Transition to University Programme for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-018-3776-6