Easter Revisison: With a little polish you can shine: An increasing number of A-level students are beating a path to 'crammers' to brush up on their exam techniques. Anne Nicholls looks at what's on offer

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ONE OF the few growth industries in the past five years has been the independent tutorial colleges that offer one to two weeks' intensive study on examination technique and subject knowledge. The reason is the increasing importance of obtaining good grades at A- levels. As universities and higher education establishments have wooed and won more 'mature' students, school and college leavers have encountered fierce competition for courses beyond A-level, despite the recent expansion in higher education.

Mike Crossthwaite, 19, is typical of the kind of young person the private revision courses are catering for. Mike was confident of good grades (As) in economics and geography at A-level, but his weakest subject, biology, was causing problems as he needed to improve on his predicted grade C in order to take up the offer of a place to read anthropology at Cambridge. He admitted to not having paid enough attention in school biology lessons for the past year and knew there were huge gaps in his knowledge. His parents felt that pounds 350 would be money well spent if it led to an A or B. So Mike was duly dispatched to attend a one-week Easter revision course at Collingham tutors in London, where the more intensive approach helped him to come to grips with the subject, despite the added distraction of encountering girls in the class for the first time.

'The course was incredibly useful,' says Mike. 'It really got me excited about biology. I certainly wouldn't have got a grade B otherwise.'

Collingham is one of 120 or so independent tutorial colleges and organisations, often known as 'crammers', which offer intensive A-level and GCSE revision courses for some 10,000 young people every year.

'These colleges are certainly in a growth market,' says John Trevis, education consultant with Gabbitas, Truman and Thring.

'Over the past three or four years there has been an increasing emphasis on results and grades. Many parents who can't afford independent education find they can manage the more modest fees for a week at a private


Gabbitas, Truman and Thring does not run courses itself; it offers a free recommendation service to parents and young people on the best choice of course or college to suit individual needs. Consultants visit schools and colleges regularly and make their own assessments, which is essential in the absence of any formal inspection system or quality control in the independent further education sector.

Some colleges run courses on their own premises. Others, such as Justin Craig, hire out rooms in schools, colleges and universities during holidays. There are also independent schools such as Millfield, Wellington College and Dulwich College, which run courses both for their own pupils and for those from other schools. And a few further education colleges are starting to enter the market. Inevitably, most of the colleges (other than those held in schools) are clustered around the major university towns of London, Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh.

So what should parents and pupils expect for their money?

The main advantages of taking a privately run revision course are that the groups are much smaller - eight at most - and the focus is purely on examination technique without the broader educational 'trimmings'.

Students may also find that a fresh approach and a different personality can make a seemingly dull subject come alive. Often a personality clash at school can affect performance. A different teacher can help overcome psychological barriers.

'But the course won't change an E grade into an A,' warns John Trevis. An improvement by just one grade is more realistic.

'The revision course is intended to polish and buff up rusty skills: if someone hasn't done any work for a whole year, they can't expect miracles.'

Contrary to the image of a sausage machine cramming indigestible facts into reluctant mouths, the atmosphere on most courses is friendly and relaxed, with plenty of individual attention. Students should expect to be tested or assessed on the first day and their weak areas identified. Most of the time is spent going through past and possible questions and honing examination technique, with a mock examination at the end of the course, followed by an analysis. The hours are normally around 40 a week, although on some courses the teaching day goes on until 9pm - so students are expected to put in additional hours and effort. Some may also be given homework in the


Private colleges are not the only establishments running revision courses: many of the independent schools run similar programmes for outsiders as well as their own pupils. Uppingham School in Rutland, for instance, runs one- and two-week Easter residential and non-residential revision courses.

'Our aim is to boost confidence and help students to concentrate. We try to give them a really good boost to their morale, as well as sound personal tuition,' says Robin Schlich, the course director.

Robin Wilson, chairman of the Headmasters Conference, points out that these courses are not compensating for poor teaching, nor are they viewed as unhealthy competition. 'I see them more as a final burst, which can benefit those pupils who wake up too late. If well done, they can be very


Most colleges have a core of permanent staff and a number of self-

employed tutors. Some specialise in sciences and have excellent laboratory facilities; others may offer more unusual subjects, such as film studies or Russian. It is obviously important to check on the qualifications and experience of the staff and how long the courses have been running before parting with any money (see right).

Fortunately, the 'cowboy' operations don't last long because this is a business dependent upon reputation.

Nevertheless, there are stories of colleges that recruit untried and untested extra staff at the last minute to meet a sudden increase in demand. Any parents wanting to ensure that their money is spent wisely should read the prospectus carefully, noting the credentials of the staff and comments from past students. And, if time permits, a visit is always useful.

Finally, if the organisation guarantees success and gives you the hard sell - go elsewhere.

Prices: Expect to pay an average of pounds 350 for a week's non-residential course and pounds 400 for a residential one.

Addresses: The British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education, c/o Middlesex University, All Saints, White Hart Lane, London N17 8HR (081-368 1299).

Gabbitas, Truman and Thring, 6-8 Sackville Street, London W1X 2BR

(071-734 0161).

What to ask about the course and college

How long has the college/organisation been in business?

Does it belong to a professional body, or is it accredited by a reputable organisation? (There are some excellent colleges that are not affiliated with any organisation, and non-membership does not necessarily mean that they are disreputable.)

What qualifications and experience do the teachers have?

How long have they been with the college or school?

Are they covering the syllabus required?

How do they intend to cope with students who have studied different syllabuses from different examination boards?

Can they give examples of past successes and achievements?

What are the facilities and accommodation like?

What is the average size of teaching groups?

Is there any kind of follow-up service?

(Photograph omitted)