National reach, local values

IntoUniversity won the Charity Times Charity of the Year (£1-£5m income) in 2015, recognised for its excellent model and approach to targeting areas of greatest need. Chief executive Dr Rachel Carr told Matt Ritchie how the organisation grew from a community centre project to a national charity helping thousands of children a year

Like so many good ideas, IntoUniversity’s award-winning programme started small. While its income puts it in the top 20 per cent of registered charities and its increasing footprint qualifies it as a national charity, IntoUniversity started with a conversation between three friends who had spotted a problem through their involvement in a North Kensington community centre.

Dr Rachel Carr was one of those three, and is now the charity’s chief executive.

IntoUniversity runs a multi-faceted programme that aims to provide under-privileged children with pathways into university. The social and economic benefits of widening university participation are manifold and well documented, but former lecturer Carr has a personal connection to the initiative too.

“I was the first person in my family to go to university – my father was given a place to read Chemistry but he didn’t win a scholarship and his parents couldn’t afford to let him go,” she says. “My mother left school at 14 – my parents were determined that I would have the opportunity they didn’t have so I grew up in a very aspirational home with high expectations of what I would achieve. Giving this to young people today is quite personal for me!”


IntoUniversity runs local learning centres in deprived grassroots communities where there is not a history of young people going on to higher education. The programme currently has waiting lists, and in order to be eligible students have to be on free school meals or meet equivalent criteria around household income and social housing occupation. Another eligibility criterion is children who will be the first generation in their family to apply to university.

The programme starts at seven with widening participation projects starting at primary school. As a result, children can come into the programme at a young age and work with the charity through primary and secondary school and into university.

Support takes a number of forms. IntoUniversity provides after school academic support and a mentoring programme, and aspirational workshops and university visits for primary school children.

“We’re a pastoral model, so we spend a lot of time looking after the children that we work with to make sure that all their needs are being met,” Carr says.

The programme is delivered through centres based in the heart of each community IntoUniversity operates in.

Students come to the centres individually and receive high-quality tuition in small groups, delivered by the charity’s staff team and trained volunteers. They are provided with resources they may not have access to at home such as laptops, university prospectuses, and books.

There is also the FOCUS programme, in which students in the last two years of primary school come to the centre as a class with their teachers and participate in activities run by IntoUniversity staff.

“The idea for us is that we’re working with the school to give them a different education experience. So on a Focus Week the school might say ‘can you run a Focus Week on Shakespeare or on biology’, and they’ll spend the whole week on interactive, hands-on activities connected to that national curriculum topic. Then throughout the week they’ll also have workshops about university and on the last day they’ll have a university visit and a graduation with mini mortar boards and gowns. The idea is that we introduce primary school children to the idea of what a university is, what benefits they’ll gain from studying hard to get there, then we give them a really good positive experience of visiting a university,” Carr explains.


Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills data shows that completion of an undergraduate degree increases the probability of being employed at any point in time by 3.3 per cent. In the first quarter of 2015, 87 per cent of graduates aged 21 to 30 were employed, compared to 70 per cent of non-graduates.

There are also a range of non-market benefits associated with social and political participation, lifestyle, and wellbeing.

So, when Carr and colleague Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard noticed through their work with a North Kensington community centre that a section of society seemed not to have an avenue to enjoying these benefits the decision came to do something about it.

“I was a university lecturer at the time,” Carr says. “We were running some small education projects at the community centre and I’d realised that the students that were in my lecture theatre weren’t the students that were living near to the community centre. We did some research and realised that the underachievement of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds was much higher compared to children from more affluent backgrounds. We were really trying to address a local problem, that’s how the programme started. Almost instinctively thinking we really needed to start when the children were still at primary school, and start demystifying university before they’d already got into patterns of behaviour or ideas about their future that didn’t include that ambition.”

IntoUniversity started as a one-site programme in 2002. Then Carr, Rayment-Pickard and ClementJames Centre chief executive Clare Richards began looking into whether the initiative could be expanded into other communities.

The project attracted seed funding from the Sutton Trust, and IntoUniversity’s expansion began.

Today IntoUniversity operates 21 centres across London, Nottingham, Bristol, Oxford, Brighton, Leeds, and Southampton. Each centre has four full-time staff running the programme and between 60 and 80 volunteers working with the children.

The charity’s growth saw it reach around 21,000 children last year. Considering the programme’s success, this reach has considerable impact. Some 79 per cent of school leavers who have participated in the IntoUniversity programme progress to higher education, compared with 23 per cent of all free school meals students.

Partnerships and finance

IntoUniversity’s growth, while substantial, has been pursued in a measured way and the charity has been careful not to run before it can walk.

“We’re quite cautious,” Carr says. “Our expansion to date has been quite big but it’s been slow and steady. We’ve done it carefully.”

Regional centres are run in partnership with their local universities – with the first partnership being with the University of Nottingham. The universities provide half of the funding, with the rest raised from corporates, trusts and foundations, and individual donors.

“All our partnerships with universities are five years,” Carr says, “so there’s a degree of risk mitigation there. Five years is still a relatively long time in the charity sector. We’re quite cautious.”

The Queen’s Trust is a key partner, alongside a long list of funders including Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, The Tedworth Charitable Trust, and John Lyon’s Charity. Corporate supporters include high profile names such as Goldman Sachs, UBS, and Franklin Templeton Investments.

IntoUniversity have also had some “rather generous” funding towards volunteering from the Social Action Fund, and “bits and pieces” of other Government funding along the way.

But diversification is a key priority, with spreading risk across a number of funders sitting alongside a strong reserves policy acting as ballast against any potential income issues arising.

“We want to spread our risk across different funders, we don’t want to be reliant on Government or local authority funding,” Carr says. “The funding climate is very tough for local authorities. That said, if Government funding was available we wouldn’t be sniffy about it!”


IntoUniversity aims to reach 30,000 children a year, through its existing centres, new centres, and through expansions to its programme.

Building on the existing offering is a work in progress, and work on how IntoUniversity could add additional valuable services is in its early stages.

As well as thinking creatively in-house, Carr says IntoUniversity works with its school partners, universities, and corporate supporters towards coming up with new ideas. It can also draw on the knowledge and experience of its network of staff and volunteers for input into how the service it offers could be expanded.

Impetus-PEF and The Queen’s Trust both provide access to a network of expert advice alongside the funding the charity receives from them.

“We’ll be taking advantage of that when we’re looking at how to develop the programme,” Carr says. “We’ve also got an incredibly talented team of young, passionate and ambitious graduates. They’re full of excitement and passion about what we do.

Some of them are teachers, some of them have got degrees in early years, so we’ve got a lot of in-house and external expertise we can draw on.”

Carr says IntoUniversity is considering whether it could do more with the children coming into the programme at age seven, and with those at the other end of the spectrum who may require more support once they have reached higher education.

“The evidence shows that students from disadvantaged backgrounds who get to university are less likely to do well when they leave. We already offer some support for students at university through a corporate mentoring scheme. We’re looking at how we can expand what we do with that group to support them through their university path.”

The future

However the charity develops, Carr is adamant that IntoUniversity keeps its core principles at the heart of its approach.

Refreshingly reluctant to wheel out clichés about IntoUniversity being a ‘values-based’ charity, Carr nonetheless stresses the importance of the organisation staying focused on what it exists for and ensuring this focus is maintained across the charity.

“I mean that in a really tough way. Thinking about what the charity’s values mean, in terms of how we embed them throughout the organisation, is hugely important to us.”

IntoUniversity was born out of a few people trying to meet a local need, and while it is now a national charity, it is still very local in its approach to helping its service users.

Befitting someone who never set out to be the chief executive of a relatively large charity, Dr Rachel Carr does not see herself in the role forever.

A time will come to step away, but first, Carr wants to ensure that IntoUniversity is well placed to continue delivering its important work into the future, benefiting many more generations of children.

“I’d definitely like to hand it over at some point,” Carr says. “We need to consolidate what we’ve done and make sure all of our centres are continuing to be embedded in the local community - but it’s really important we’re able to hand it over. It’s not about me, it’s about the young people. The charity isn’t about the one or two people who started it, it’s about all of our staff teams delivering a quality programme.”

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