Education: How to make the best of a second chance: Private revision courses are expensive and popular but often fail their students. Elaine Williams investigates

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The Independent Online
Stephen Dix will always remember the day his daughter bounced up to him after a week's revision course away in Oxford and told him it was the best holiday she had ever had. He had expected 15-year-old Georgina to be tired but wiser after a week brushing up her French and English with a 'tutorial' company before her GCSEs.

However, it seems that Georgina had played hard and worked hardly at all.

She had had the same tutor for both subjects. Georgina said he was a postgraduate student with little teaching experience and no familiarity with her English literature set books. In 'study skills' time, members of her group were left largely to their own devices. No homework was set. Mixed accommodation was effectively unsupervised. The pupils went wild. Some parents took their children out in mid-course.

Mr Dix had responded to a newspaper advertisement and paid several hundred pounds in advance for Georgina's course. In the event she passed English but failed French: 'I might as well have paid for her to go to Butlin's for a week,' he said.

Georgina is a pupil of Pipers Corner, an independent girls' school in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Gill Jefford, the school's head of sixth form, has become somewhat cynical about the whole revision course market for both GCSE and A-levels, having seen several pupils come to grief in this way: 'I'm often asked by parents, 'Is it a good idea?' and I often say, 'No'.

'A good revision course can focus the mind and sharpen students up, but bad revision courses, often taught by unqualified people, can lead to a great deal of confusion.'

Despite these hazards, the market in revision courses, including those starting in September for November and January retakes, is growing, and increasing numbers are coming from the state sector.

Gerald Hattee, principal of the independent Collingham Sixth- Form College in Kensington, west London, said that up to 35 per cent of his students on these courses came from the state sector.

Parents who could not or would not pay for independent schooling often budgeted for Easter revision or were prepared to make sacrifices for that crucial retake. Competition for university places is fierce, especially as quotas have been frozen while numbers seeking university education grow every year. Moreover, some employers are beginning to specify the A-level grades, degree and university they require of an employee.

Consequently, colleges such as Collingham are seeing more students on retake courses with good grades - but not good enough for the 'Ivy League' universities.

Some, but not all, examination boards offer November and January retakes, so candidates have to be careful that colleges and companies offering courses can match boards with the syllabus with which they are familiar. This is easier with maths and science subjects than with humanities.

Parents should choose with care. Such courses are offered mostly by tutorial colleges, the best of which use their own experienced in-house staff. But some companies and 'colleges' advertising in newspapers operate largely on a seasonal basis, hiring rooms and staff to meet demand.

Paul Caira, a former maths tutor at Lansdowne, a London tutorial college, says parents have to be discerning if they want value for money. Above all, they would be best advised to go to a reputable college with a track record. 'We're into the silly season when A-level results come out and the colleges turn out their most charismatic teachers to talk to parents in interviews.

'Parents should ask for a guarantee that the teacher they have met and liked will be the one who teaches their child. Most colleges will agree to this for the sake of getting their name on the dotted line.'

Retake courses, lasting between 10 and 15 weeks, should be intensive, covering all main subject topics, improving exam technique, and offering a heavy homework load, rapid marking and regular progress reports.

The Colleges of Independent Further Education, or CIFE, is a self-regulating body accredited by the British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education (BAC).

Member colleges' published exam results have to meet CIFE regulations and are subject to independent audit. The organisation was created in an attempt to regulate a notoriously variable education sector.

Mr Hattee, a former CIFE chairman, said good colleges would give proper advice on retake decisions. This would involve a judicious assessment of the pupil's motives and ability: 'If a child is clever but lazy, a short retake course is appropriate. If the pupil has worked hard and the problem lies with understanding, a longer course would be more appropriate.'

Pupils can transfer to a different board with only minor adjustments for a January retake.

At Collingham a November retake course costs pounds 980 per subject. A January one costs pounds 1,500. Revision courses of between one and two weeks can cost from pounds 110 to more than pounds 300. Families now witnessing the scramble for university places who are planning and budgeting for GCSE and A-level Easter revision should be especially careful where they place their money.

Will colleges be using their own in-house staff? Will they cover their child's syllabus in anything but the most general way? Is their child of the type who will benefit?

Hard-working pupils experiencing difficulties with only particular aspects of the syllabus might be better advised to employ a personal tutor at home or seek help from their own school's teachers - by far the cheaper option.

WHAT PARENTS SHOULD ASK:

How many hours' teaching will pupils receive a day?

Will staff tutors be used?

Where will classes be held?

Usual class sizes.

Will pupils have the teachers they meet in interview?

Will the college provide regular reports?

Will the boards and syllabuses be suitable?

Does the college have a proven track record?

Is the college a member of CIFE or is it BAC-accredited?

CIFE is running a help line until 9 September: 071-233 7297/7397 or 071-630 8793.

(Photograph omitted)

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