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Improved confidence and capability for post-16 students on University of Sheffield’s Sutton Trust Summer School

The University of Sheffield, in collaboration with The Sutton Trust, an educational charity championing social mobility through programmes, research and policy influence, offers a Summer School to underrepresented year 12 students across the UK. With a programme of academic taster sessions, tasks and challenges, students get the chance to explore their subject of interest and gain valuable experience to support their university application. Participants also spend the week in student accommodation, meeting new people and taking part in social events to get an authentic feel for university life. 

The University of Sheffield's Sutton Trust Summer School has been accredited by Skills Builder as an Impact Level 4 programme: Progressing in essential skills. 

Essential skills for personal growth and development

The Access Service at the University of Sheffield supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who tend to have lower educational attainment compared with their peers and are consequently less likely to participate in higher education. 

To help close this attainment gap and widen access to higher education for underrepresented groups, our aim is to provide practical engagement opportunities that support prospective students to develop the essential skills they require for academic success and progression to university. 

Through horizon scanning of our target groups, we identified that many prospective students also lack the confidence and self-efficacy, which contribute to high aspirations and personal expectations for the future. 

To overcome these barriers, we have developed an evidence-based, sequential curriculum which is underpinned by the Skill Builder framework, allowing students to practise and demonstrate the skills they need to support their personal growth and development.

How did Sheffield incorporate the essential skills?

Through our partnership with Skills Builder, the Access Service received dedicated training and support to familiarise the team with the Framework and how to embed this into our widening access provision. We planned and defined  the skill focus for the Sutton Trust Summer School, including the range of skill steps to be addressed, based on the nature of the curriculum and the age of the participants. 

We decided to focus on problem solving, creativity and teamwork, between steps 4 and 12 in the Universal Framework. With the support of our academic contributors, we underpinned activities with skill-building, providing participants with practical opportunities to practise and demonstrate their essential skills.

As we were keen to drive progress in skill-building, in line with Impact Level 4, we incorporated a minimum of four skill steps within each skill, allowing students to build on their learning and development throughout the experience. Each day, students had opportunities to reflect on their progress and identify areas for improvement. 

At the end of their experience, students drew upon their learning and reflection to deliver a group presentation on the skills they’d developed and how these would contribute to their success beyond the programme. Those who best demonstrated problem solving, creativity and teamwork throughout the week were awarded a prize. To quantify progress and understand the impact of the programme, participants completed Benchmark evaluation at the start and end of their time with us. 

Tangible impact of essential skills

In reviewing the Benchmark data, it was fantastic to see that the summer school had a tangible impact on the confidence and capability of our participants, across all of the essential skills. The following Benchmark data illustrates this impact within the chosen skills for the programme, and more generally across the Framework:

Problem Solving

  • 92% of participants improved or maintained their skill score in problem solving
  • On average, participants improved their skill score by 1.78


  • 93% of participants improved or maintained their skill score in creativity
  • On average, participants improved their skills score by 1.93


  • 81% of participants improved or maintained their skill score in teamwork
  • On average, participants improved their skill score by 1.40


  • At the end of the summer school, participants were most confident in problem solving, creativity and teamwork, over all other essential skills, with an average score of 12.39, 12.53 and 12.71, respectively
  • 93% of participants improved their average skill score across all 8 essential skills
  • On average, participants improved their skill score by 1.87 across all 8 essential skills

As part of the programme evaluation, students also shared the following feedback on Skills Builder:

  • “I feel like Skills Builder made me reflect and realise the skills that I have developed over the programme, which I can include in my personal statement and apply in other situations.”
  • “I've seen a lot of improvement in each skill section and feel more confident with each.”
  • “It allowed me to understand where I need to improve and which skills are my strengths.”

These results were a huge achievement for the team, clearly highlighting the extent to which Skills Builder had positively impacted on our participants. Our hope is that students will take their learning and development from the Sutton Trust Summer School back to their post-16 studies, where it will support their academic attainment and future progression to higher education. 

Megan Rostern-Thomson, Senior Access Development Officer (Curriculum Development) at Sheffield, said:

“Working with the Skills Builder Partnership has provided us with a simple, yet highly effective framework for embedding skill building into our widening access programmes. As a member, we have received ongoing training and support to understand the framework and build it into our curriculum, making the process easy and efficient for our practitioners. We've also been grateful to work with a dedicated associate who has been a consistent point of contact, providing us with regular communications and catch ups to discuss our progress and any challenges we've encountered along the way. We highly value our partnership with Skills Builder and we look forward to building this in the years to come!”

Future plans

The Benchmark data from our first Sutton Trust Summer School will be used to inform future developments to the programme. Through the average skill scores, we were able to identify key skills that students needed more time to explore and demonstrate, including speaking, aiming high and staying positive. Going forward, we will consider how these skills may be actively integrated into activities to address areas where participants lack confidence. We also plan to explore further ways in which the Skills Builder Universal Framework can underpin the programme, for example, by embedding skill-building in the social elements of the programme, to demonstrate how essential skills contribute to positive outcomes in wider life. 

Whilst this case study showcases the integration of Skills Builder into our Sutton Trust Summer School, we have been working with the Partnership to embed the Universal Framework across all of our widening access provision. In the coming months, we will be launching a new range of Access to Sheffield programmes to upskill prospective students and support them on their journey to higher education.

To find out more about the Access Service at The University of Sheffield and our engagement opportunities, please visit:

For HE and post-16 institutions who want to embed essential skills, contact Skills Builder HE lead, Joella Lynch.