The price of good GCSEs

Exam results at 16-plus are more important than ever. Tutorial colleges can help. By Diana Hinds
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The Independent Culture
FOR A student who is serious about higher education, having a good string of GCSEs is an increasingly important asset. These days, university admissions officers look hard not just at A-level results, but at GCSEs, which are thought by some to be a better predictor of degree class than A-levels. A motley assortment of grades at GCSE will not help students win places at top universities.

No wonder, then, that the market for GCSE study at private tutorial colleges has been growing over the past five years. Successful colleges are adapting to educational trends and throwing off the "crammer" label of old.

Retaking, both at GCSE and A-level, is less common than it was, with fewer examination boards offering winter retakes. For students with disappointing grades there are other options: many A-level students find alternative courses through the university clearing system, or switch to an HND; and a student who does badly at GCSEs may be advised to pursue an NVQ or BTEC.

Of the 30-odd private tutorial colleges accredited to the Conference for Independent Further Education (CIFE), almost all now offer GCSE tuition in addition to A-level. This may take the form of a one-year course for 15 year olds transferring after a year of GCSE work, or a two-year course covering the whole GCSE programme. D'Overbroeck's in Oxford has recently extended its GCSE department to take in 13 year olds. Most colleges also offer an intensive Easter revision course, where GCSE students can improve on several subjects during the holidays.

So private tutorial colleges now represent an added option for parents looking for the best for their child. "We find we fill a very nice niche for students who are unhappy at school, or who are not achieving," says Pen Keyte, head of the GCSE department at D'Overbroeck's.

"Mostly students come to us because of unhappiness at school - and when you're unhappy, you switch off," says Gilly Green, principal of Collingham tutorial college in Kensington. Sometimes students have been badly bullied, or are suffering from eating disorders, she says.

They have not been able to fit in with institutional school life and have not wanted to be simply "on the conveyor belt".

For students who have blotted their copy book at school, tutorial college gives them the chance to start again. "When they come here and the institutional pressures are lifted, they blossom," Ms Green says.

"They don't feel typecast according to age or gender; they like being on first-name terms with the tutors; and they like the fact that there is no back of the class. They have to do a lot more thinking, and nobody has really asked them before what they think."

The majority of students at tutorial colleges come from independent schools and parents need to be able to find fees of at least pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000 a term.

Their chief advantage is that, for students who have not been happy at school, tutorial colleges do not feel like school. They are often based in large, handsome houses, students are taught in small groups, bullying is rarely a problem and the relationship with tutors is friendly and supportive.

"There is a sense of being nurtured," Pen Keyte says. "Everyone comments on the lack of hierarchy: there is a freedom to be yourself, without fear of victimisation."

Because numbers are small, students can be treated more as individuals, says Ms Green. Academically, too, courses can be more flexible, enabling students to move on faster with some subjects and not others.

One of the disadvantages can be that the size of the college limits the range of extra-curricular activities that it can provide and that is so important to students in the GCSE years.

"We keep team sports down to a minimum - two hours a week - so that we can concentrate on the academic side," says Nigel Stout, managing director of the Mander Portman Woodward group, which runs colleges in London, Bristol, Cambridge and Birmingham.

"This may not suit children who need to be letting off a lot of steam. It is less appropriate for a GCSE student than an A-level student to be focussing 90 per cent of the time on academic work, and parents need to think about this."

Wendy Fidler at Gabbitas Educational Consultants, says parents need to do some research before opting for a tutorial college, as standards vary. First of all, the college should be accredited - to CIFE, to the British Accreditation Council, or to the Independent Schools' Council.

Staff should be suitably qualified, and experienced in teaching at GCSE level. Parents should ask about previous exam results and should look at the range of facilities on offer.

Parents should also be prepared, in some cases, to be turned away. The general assumption is that a tutorial college is a commercial operation and will therefore take anybody - but that is not the case. although head teachers will sometimes recommend to a tutorial college that a pupil may be better served by them.

"We are dealing with children who have had problems in the past," Ms Green says. "Mostly we find the problems don't persist once they come to us, but there are, of course, times when you don't crack it."

Gabbitas Educational Consultants, 0171-734 0161