THOUSANDS of pupils as young as 11 will be told about the benefits of going to university or college as part of a £400,000 initiative to promote equal access to higher education.
The drive by Glasgow University will see staff visiting nearly 50 target secondary schools across the west of Scotland to speak to more than 12,000 pupils from S1 to S3 about their future choices.
University staff have already visited around 3000 pupils at 12 secondaries under a pilot project this year which focused on schools with comparatively low progression rates to higher education, as well as serving high numbers of disadvantaged postcode areas.
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The move comes after concern most initiatives to widen access target pupils in the upper years of secondary when it may be too late to ensure the necessary subjects have been studied.
Alerting pupils to the future opportunities higher education can unlock is vital where they lack parental support or have experienced a troubled upbringing which has disrupted their studies.
Jonathan Jones, director of UK recruitment and widening participation at Glasgow University, said the project marked a step change in attempts to reach bright pupils from poorer backgrounds.
"We looked at what we were already doing to promote equality of access and to see where the gaps were and it seemed there was an issue with younger pupils," he said.
"By the time pupils have made their subject choices and are studying for their exams it may be that some who could have benefited from a university education have not thought about it or have dropped subjects that make it impossible to go.
"Our tutors are now working with pupils from the first three years of secondary school to get them to think about the benefits of further study and what they need to do to get there."
Neill Croll, the university's head of widening participation, said: "If we are really going to make a difference with pupils from the earlier secondary year groups then we have to work with as large a number of schools as possible to maximise the number of applicants in future years.
"The pilot project was well received by schools and pupils and it is exciting to be able to expand it in such a significant way."
Glasgow University is working with North Ayrshire, Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire and Argyll and Bute, with other west of Scotland councils to come on board next year.
Sandy Stevenson, a principal teacher at Irvine Royal Academy, in North Ayrshire, which was part of the pilot, believes it can make a difference. He said: "We already work with pupils to make sure they are aware of the options ahead, but this initiative with the university strengthens the work we do."
Rachel Morland, a 14-year-old from the school, said: "I hadn't really thought about study after school before because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I like art and now I know I can go on to college to get the qualifications I need to be a make-up artist."
Thirteen-year-old Chloe Stirling said: "I now know I can go to university to get the qualifications I need, but also that going there is about more than that. I can study subjects I enjoy and take part in lots of activities."
Currently, the middle classes dominate higher education and initiatives have only gone a small way to redress the balance. The Government has made it a priority for institutions to improve access with funding of £3.5 million to pay for more than 700 extra places.