Atom and County Durham Community Foundation launch Fund to promote higher education access in the North East

11 April 2024

Atom bank, the UK’s first app-based bank, in partnership with the County Durham Community Foundation (the Foundation), has today launched the Atom Futures Fund. The Fund aims to encourage and support sixth form students from low-income backgrounds or those who are in the care system to apply to Russell Group universities.

The North East of England has the highest percentage of students eligible for free school meals in the country, combined with a concentration of lower levels of opportunity for young people to access employment and fulfil their potential. This is correlated with lower levels of post 16 attainment at school and lower levels of progression to higher education. These contribute to poorer social and economic outcomes for young people in the North East than other regions in the UK, particularly for those in care and those from lower income backgrounds.

Research from the Sutton Trust has shown that access to higher education - and especially to our research-intensive universities (the 24 Russell Group universities in the UK) - is a key driver of social mobility. Young people from less well-off backgrounds who attend university are more likely to move into higher income brackets, with reduced income gaps between graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers compared to non-graduates.

Financial incentives

Split into two parts, part one of the Atom Futures Fund offers a £250 financial incentive to at least 20 eligible Year 13 students in County Durham who decide to apply for any course at a Russell Group University. This flexible funding can be used to support various aspects of the university application process, including interview preparation and travel expenses, as well as study materials, including books and equipment. This is open now with a closing date of 29 April (link below).

Part two of the Fund provides a further £1,000 for applicants who have received and subsequently accepted an offer from their chosen Russell Group University. This additional support aims to alleviate financial pressures and facilitate a smooth transition through university life by providing top up funding in the second term of their study. Atom bank and the Foundation will award a minimum of five of these grants each year, starting in August 2024.

Programme of support for young people

The Fund builds on Atom bank’s programme of support for widening participation in further education and employment in the North East. Atom bank partners with the Durham Sixth Form Centre and offers an annual paid internship programme for students. The bank also offers work experience opportunities to students from low income backgrounds through the EY Foundation Smart Futures Chartered Banker Institute programme.

From this year onwards, Atom bank is funding two new scholarships to Durham University’s Women in Technology programme, supporting the next generation of leaders in technology. Alongside the bank’s engagement with STEM education charities such as Stemettes, these initiatives among several others are all part of the bank’s wider mission to increase opportunities for local people, drive diversity in the sector and find the next generation of leaders as the bank grows.

Edward Twiddy, Director of ESG at Atom, said: “Attending a Russell Group University provides many young people with a future rich in opportunities and the best chance of fulfilling their potential. But too many talented children from low-income backgrounds or growing up in care aren’t getting these chances, and this is especially true in the North East where outcomes and opportunities for young people are amongst the poorest in the UK.

“We can’t solve all the disparities between the most and the least fortunate, but as one of the largest and fastest growing employers in the North East, we want Atom bank to be at the forefront of driving sustainable economic growth within the community, while unashamedly developing talented individuals who can join our growing workforce. Through the Fund and other initiatives, we aim to break down some of the barriers that growing up in poverty or in care can put in front of young people, and in doing so help foster excellence in our region.”

Michelle Cooper, CEO at County Durham Community Foundation said: “We know that poverty steals opportunities and restricts futures. Children and young people living in poverty are much less likely to access opportunities in education, and much less likely to have the means to take advantage of those opportunities should they present themselves.

With this new fund, Atom bank is actively working to create brighter futures for the youngsters of County Durham, enabling them to fulfil their ambitions and their potential. We’re delighted to partner with Atom bank on the Atom Futures Fund and look forward to seeing the fund’s impact over the coming years.”


Part one of the fund is open for applications now with a closing date of 29th April. Eligible applicants must be Year 13 students attending state schools within the boundaries served by Durham County Council. Applicants must either be eligible for free school meals or currently in care.

Notes to editors

For Lansons

Issie Rees-Davies, 07712 447161

Sorcha Hornett, 07712 805191

For Atom

Robbie Steel, 07538 775 701

About Atom bank

Atom bank is the UK’s first app-based bank, on a mission to make the experience of borrowing and saving faster, simpler and better value than anyone else.

The bank launched operations in April 2016, and offers award-winning mortgages and savings through its app, alongside secured business lending for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Based in the North East of England with a team of over 500 people, Atom is here to ​​change banking for the good, for the better, and for everyone. This means focusing on customers’ needs, delivering better value than the incumbents, providing an exceptional app-based experience and offering award-winning customer support via phone, chat, email and social channels. The bank has some of the best customer service credentials in the UK, having achieved 5-star ratings on both the iOS and Android App Stores, and on Trustpilot, whilst consistently delivering Net Promoter Scores (NPS) in the high 80s.

Based in Durham, Atom is an engaged and active member of the North East Community. In 2022 Atom signed a five-year Memorandum of Understanding with Durham University to progress key research and diversity initiatives. The region has one of the highest levels of youth unemployment in the UK and Atom is passionate about addressing the critical digital skills gap and helping develop young people and other groups that are under-represented within the industry.

As of November 2021, all employees enjoy a four-day working week, after Atom became the largest company - and only bank - in Britain to introduce the policy for all employees, with no reduction in salary.

The Atom executive team are highly experienced, having built and run some of the most well-respected banks in the UK. CEO Mark Mullen has 30 years’ experience in the sector and was previously CEO at the multi- award-winning telephone and internet bank first direct. The team is supported by a strong non-exec board, chaired by Lee Rochford.

About County Durham Community Foundation

Founded in 1995, County Durham Community Foundation works to fight poverty and enrich lives in County Durham. By connecting people and businesses who want to make a difference with community groups and voluntary organisations looking for support. In its 29-year history it has raised and then granted funds of over £65 million.