Good exam results are more essential than ever, and the pressure is mou nting on parents and students alike. Stephen Pritchard assesses the `crammer' approach
With stiffening competition for university places, and a stubbornly tough job market for school-leavers, there is enormous pressure on young people to perform well in their A-levels this summer. This pressure is leading a growing number of parents - and students themselves - to look at additional tuition in the run-up to the exams. In some cases, extra help may be available through the school itself. But there is also a wide variety of self-contained revision courses on offer.

Revision courses have traditionally been the preserve of independent tutorial colleges, or "crammers". A growing number of state-funded colleges of further education are also entering the market; one such institution, Richmond-upon-Thames College in westLondon, has been offering Easter revision in maths, chemistry and biology for a number of years. More may follow suit as a result of Government reforms which gave colleges independence from local authority controls.

But the bulk of Easter revision courses are still in the independent sector, where they can be residential or day-based. They are by no means a cheap option, with a week-long course costing up to £400 in London, and not much less elsewhere. Before committing themselves to that sort of expenditure, parents and students need to be clear about what they can and cannot expect an Easter revision course to achieve.

The best way to approach a revision course may be to see it as a building block for further study. What it cannot be expected to do, in one or two weeks, is span the whole two-year A-level syllabus. Nor can it hone the performance of high-flying candidates who want to fine-tune their knowledge of more specialist parts of an A-level programme.

What revision courses can do is provide a sound basis in exam techniques and give students a structure for their revision. They can also provide a spur for the less motivated to get down to work. "Courses can't do your revision for you," warns Paul Redhead, principal of the Cambridge Centre for Sixth Form Studies, an independent college. "What they are good at doing is making sure people do enough work during the holiday period. Easter is vital for A-level students; they have to get the momentum going."

The detailed content of a course may be less important than the training in exam practice and revision it can give. "Students can fill in the detail in their own time," says Mr Redhead. "A course kick-starts people into realising that what you know is important, but so is how you use it in an examination context."

A good course will go through exam questions and give quick feedback on any timed answers written in class. This may shock students who have put off looking at past papers - but a tutor should use it to boost their confidence. "One is hoping to show people how it can be done, make them feel that there is enough time left, and apply the approach they have learnt to revision back at school," Mr Redhead says.

Students who are able but lack confidence may benefit most from a revision course. "Having a teacher whose primary job is to structure revision programmes sets them up quite well for the summer when they go back to school," explains Dr Nigel Stout, co-principal of the London college Mander Portman Woodward. "Usually, Easter revision is appropriate for students who underperform for the simple reason that they lack confidence."

For some students the change of scene offered by a tutorial college, especially on a residential course, is a benefit in itself. This may be reinforced if the home environment cannot offer the right atmosphere for study.

"It shouldn't be a necessity to go on an Easter revision course," points out Tony Thomas, head of Casterton, an independent girls' boarding school in Lancashire. "But I can see cases where it might be quite useful: for the person who isn't organised, or for someone who finds the distractions in the home too great. To go on an Easter revision course can be an exciting and novel way of dealing with a dreadful chore."

To make the most of a course, both parents and students need to spend some time on preparation. Most students select a college by word of mouth, but advice is also available through CIFE (Conference for Independent Further Education). Applicants should find out as much as they can about the college and the teaching it offers. If possible, they should visit for an interview. "People can be encouraged to be pushy and insist on coming to talk to the course director," Dr Stout says.

However, communication with the college should be a two-way process. Syllabuses vary widely between examination boards, and it may be best to opt for a board-specific course where possible. But even then there can be problems if a student needs to cover particular material. Dr Stout cites cases where parents overlook the most basic requirements, such as whether a set text is covered. "The more information they can get to the college, the better able the college is to help them," he says.

Problems can also arise if a parent is pushing a son or daughter to attend a course. At A-level, students may well take the initiative themselves and ring for brochures and discuss their needs with their schools. But colleges warn against pressurising a reluctant candidate to enrol.

An intensive revision course is rarely a soft option. At best, someone who was not keen would stand to gain little from the programme. "It would be hopeless if one wasn't motivated," says Dr Stout, who likens the process to group therapy. "They have to go through a reasonable amount of hell to get the benefit out of it."

CIFE can be contacted on 01233 820797 or 01233 820634