Course Guidance: The cost and cares of a second attempt: Karen Gold looks at A-level retakes. Should you spend time and money on a crammer?

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The Independent Online
IS retaking A-levels evidence that you are stupid or determined?

Some universities turn up their noses at retake candidates, particularly for high-demand subjects such as medicine. Others will reconsider you but with higher grades than they first required: after all, you are getting more time than competing candidates. Still others, like the Royal Free Hospital medical school in London, where 30 per cent of students have done retakes, see retaking as a positive indication that you are really committed.

If you retake even one subject in November or January (depending on the exam board) you will be working every evening; if you retake in the summer (which most good colleges advise if you need to boost grades in all three subjects) you might not have to work so intensively, but you will be slogging over old ground for a long time.

That assumes you retake in the subjects you chose two years ago. There is a case for changing at least one subject: it will keep you academically fresh and your interests may have changed since you were 16. Covering a new subject in a year will be hard work too though - and you will need to check, as you should anyway, with the admissions tutor of your first and second choice universities to be sure that retakes or your new subject will be acceptable.

Your decision on changing subjects may also depend on whether there are parts of your existing A- levels which you could carry over in a retake. Some exam boards allow you to carry over practical, aural or project marks - though obviously you only want to do that if they were high.

Having decided on retakes, the next decision is where to do them. Your school or college may take you back (some schools now offer separate retake classes) or you may prefer to go somewhere else: either a local further education college, or a private 'crammer'.

The crammer will have more potted plants, the FE college more discos, but in both you will be treated like an adult.

Find out if you are spending your time and money wisely. What are the class sizes? (Too small can be a disadvantage as well as too large). What are the teachers' qualifications? (Don't be over-impressed with degrees from ancient universities; teaching certificates are better proof that the teacher can get knowledge into your head as well as having it in theirs). Ask how long the teachers have been there and can you meet your subject specialists.

What were recent results in your subjects? Don't be fobbed off with averaged results from all subjects, nor with results from only one year, particularly if it is not last year. Don't be frightened to specify the results you want: the college's record on grades A-C is no use if you have got to have B or above.

Ask about entrants to higher education, but don't forget that unless you failed your A-levels completely you too could be in higher education this year. There is no point in being impressed with a 95 per cent success rate if the success is in getting into colleges you have yourself rejected.

Obviously the main difference between local FE colleges and crammers is cost. Retaking three A-levels at a crammer would cost more than pounds 10,000 and there are often hidden extras such as laboratory or examination fees. Fees at your local FE college will be around pounds 100.

The crammers will argue that you are paying for their retake expertise. In some cases this is undoubtedly true. The long established crammers have not only years of experience bringing failed A-level candidates up to scratch, but also offer practice interviews, PCAS/UCCA form-filling supervision, contacts with friendly admissions tutors.

Some FE colleges will also provide this - and their retake results, though probably not as good as the top crammers', are almost certainly better than those crammers achieving less than 50 per cent grades A-C. Their whole existence is not dedicated to retakes as the crammers' is, and they will supervise you less intensely.

The Independent Schools Information Service and the Conference for Independent Further Education are offering an advice and referral hotline until this Friday for people wanting vacancies. The hotline numbers are: 071-233 7297, 071-233 7397 and and 071- 630 8793 and they are manned 9am to 5pm. CIFE also has a list of independent colleges: telephone 0233-820 797.