Few teenagers take to revision easily. Unlike homework, which is generally a discrete task with beginning and end, exam revision is much more difficult to structure and can seem horribly endless: how do you know when you have done enough?
Conscientious pupils preparing for exams need to be able to revise actively: not just to sit staring at an open book, but to close the book and either test themselves, or find somebody to test them. They also need practice in exam technique, and clear guidance as to what sort of answers an examiner will be expecting. This last has become easier to achieve in today's league-table-dominated world and Andrew Nixon, the head teacher of Fortismere School, a sought-after comprehensive, says: "There is close contact now between teachers and examiners, so that we know precisely what they are looking for." Nixon also likes to take his sixth-form pupils to subject conferences run by chief examiners, "so they hear [what is expected of them] from the horse's mouth". Teachers also attend similar conferences, he says, and prepare detailed revision booklets for their pupils, tailored to exam specifications.
But there will always be people - parents as well as pupils, from state schools as well as independent - who worry that all this is not quite enough. Those that can afford it may decide to invest several hundred pounds in a private revision course.
Vivien Ainley, the head teacher of South Hampstead School for Girls says most of her pupils don't need revision courses. But she acknowledges that there are cases where, in response to parents' concerns, she might sometimes recommend them. "For pupils who lack the motivation to start their revision, who can't start or don't know where to start, revision courses can be good at promoting confidence. They can also be good at stripping a subject down to its bare bones and starting again, and they are possibly most useful for subjects which involve sequential learning, such as maths, science and languages."
Holly Tweddel, 16, preparing for GCSEs last year at Putney High School, in London, decided a week's revision course at Easter would help her get her combined science up to an A*A* double award. "I was nervous about taking my GCSEs and am not very good at settling down to revision," she says. "I don't concentrate for long periods of time, especially if it's just looking over past work." She signed up for a week at Davies Laing and Dick (DLD) College in London, where she found that lively students and an enthusiastic teacher, "made revising more entertaining," and boosted her confidence. She gained her A*A*, and her mother, too, was pleased with the investment, saying: "From a parent's point of view, an Easter revision course proved to be a great way to avoid revision nagging and confrontational argument, which can be such a turn off to a teenager."
Like DLD, Abbey College in Cambridge reports an increasing number of students applying for GCSE revision courses, including increasing numbers from state schools. Schools may be making greater efforts with exam revision, but tutorial colleges like these pride themselves on placing revision technique at the very heart of their operation. Julian Davies, the principal of Abbey College, explains: "We teach the students in a very exam-focussed style. We don't say, let's talk about the heart. We say, what do you need to write about the heart, what facts do you need to know?"
DLD offers five half days of GCSE or AS revision for £300, and Abbey College (which also operates in Birmingham, Manchester and London) runs GCSE courses, two hours a day for five days, for £165. Justin Craig education, which signs up about 3,000 students on Easter revision courses all over the country, goes even further and offers some residential revision courses (for example eight GCSEs in 11 days, for £1,000).
Marilyn Craig, its director, believes the advent of modular exams and AS levels has boosted demand for revision courses as it is no longer practicable to rely on re-sits. "Pupils and parents are only just beginning to realise the importance and the need for good grades first time around," she says.
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