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Tower Hamlet Summer University

Author: Julie Caulier Grice
Published Date: 10 April 2008

In 1993 Michael Young noticed that when schools broke up for the summer, youth crime would begin to increase after a brief week of normality.


To give young people access to a range of free and accessible local activities that they would want to take part in – thus breaking the cycle of boredom and providing the opportunity to engage in constructive activities over the summer holidays.


Initial research uncovered that young people were no longer interested in youth clubs or ‘top-down’ organised events. Instead, they wanted activities with clear learning outcomes and no barriers to attendance such as festivals and activities like film-making, football and maths. A successful pilot programme for young people aged 14 to 21 years was carried out in 1995 with the support of the local Education Business Partnership and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The pilot was extensively evaluated by Dr Tony Flower and other members of Michael Young’s team. In 1996, Young, together with Rex Hall, persuaded the borough to second two staff members from their youth service to help to establish the project as a charity which became Tower Hamlets Summer Education Ltd., commonly known as THSU. Since then the programme has expanded and improved, inspiring other London boroughs and areas of Britain to emulate its model and utilise the empty buildings and infrastructure of schools, colleges and universities which remain largely redundant during the summer period.


Today, a major programme of activities is in place for young people aged 11-25, in diverse subjects ranging from Careers in the Maritime Industry and Stocks and Shares Trading, to International Cookery and Wheelchair Basketball. Other popular subject areas include music, performing and visual arts, new media, business and industry, sports and healthy lifestyle, IT and fashion. The charity is currently developing a year-round programme, Summer Uni Plus, and has an award-winning quarterly magazine, Nang!, edited and produced entirely by young people. In addition, it has a highly successful peer volunteer programme and young ambassadors ‘advisory’ group.


In 2003 the Metropolitan Police provided crime figures showing that since THSU was established in 1995, rates of juvenile nuisance had fallen by 17 percent, drug offences by 25 percent and there had been an overall reduction in youth crime in the borough by 8 percent over the summer holiday period. These improvements occurred despite the fact Tower Hamlets has the fastest growing teenage population in Britain. Scaling Up From the outset, the programme generated a lot of interest from other London boroughs. In its first year it won a Commission for Racial Equality Award for “excellence and innovation in promoting racial equality” and for their “delivery of services to culturally diverse communities”. It was the first award of this type won by any Tower Hamlets organisation. Building on this momentum, in 1998 THSU decided to establish the consultancy Summer Education UK (SEUK), to support other areas of the country looking to replicate the idea. However, SEUK failed after it split from THSU in 2002. According to Sarah Davies, Director of THSU, the failure of SEUK was primarily because it never ran projects itself and SEUK finally ceased operations in 2005.


In 1999 THSU/SEUK was awarded National Lottery money to help the London Boroughs of Brent, Hackney and Westminster establish Summer Universities. The charity was already running a large Millennium Award programme, which ran for seven years and by 2002 had worked with young people from at least nine London boroughs, Slough, Epping Forest, Somerset and Blackburn with Darwen. In 2005, THSU was identified by Lord Adonis, then constitution policy advisor in the No. 10 Policy Unit, and London Challenge as a model of excellence in summer learning. Some months later, THSU was commissioned to roll out the model over two to three years across all 33 London boroughs, as well as to continue support to all existing Summer Universities. This new project was called Summer Uni London (SUL). Having learnt from the mistakes of SEUK, the charity ensured that SUL would be well integrated within THSU. Davies describes the approach of SUL: ‘We run all these projects in Tower Hamlets, we deliver, we’ve got all the knowledge and the information to say ‘this works: this doesn’t’. We try lots of different approaches: youth magazines; advisory groups; peer motivators. We practise what we preach. At first the SUL team planned to separate in a fairly short time frame, however they now accept the projects compliment each other completely and without THSU, SUL would not be a success.’


Ten summer universities ran during the summer of 2006, and SUL received an additional twenty-four expressions of interest for starting a Summer University in summer 2007. Thirty-two of the thirty-three boroughs have joined the Summer Uni network. THSU secured £1 million from the Jack Petchey Foundation, with a further £1 million coming from London Challenge, to distribute “tranches” of £66,000 to boroughs that submitted successful applications for a Summer Uni grant. The boroughs have to match 50 percent of the grant from their own funds. The ‘push’ provided by the promise of government funding, has ensured continued interest in the concept of Summer Universities.


THSU’s aim of opening Summer Universities to all young people regardless of where they live can conflict with the priorities of the local authorities, whose primary aim is to accommodate local residents. The SUL grant provides a strong incentive for Summer Universities to allow young people from outside their own boroughs to attend their programmes. If any boroughs fail to take up the opportunity to apply for an SUL grant by September 2007, THSU will actively seek other partners, for example in the voluntary sector, to establish a Summer Uni in their area. It is also important that pressure from London Challenge for all London boroughs to quickly establish a Summer Uni, does not compromise THSU’s ethos or the quality of provision. THSU must also overcome obstacles posed by the schools themselves, which can sometimes be difficult to work with and can make for arduous and unsuccessful partnerships. Schools may feel that THSU is inconvenient, as they often need to carry out maintenance on buildings and most of their staff are on holiday during the summer months. Some schools have also been slow to accept evidence of the benefits to young people who participate in a Summer University. Other challenges have included a lack of resources for publicity or to raise the profile of the programme, and reluctance on the part of funders to meet the administrative costs of running a Summer University.