Education: Making the grade at Easter

Rather than burning the midnight oil alone, anxious GCSE and

A-level students can sign up for residential Easter revision courses at some of the country's top public schools.

Elaine Williams finds out what benefits the courses provide.

Britain's top public schools are opening their gates to pupils seeking help with A-level and GCSE revision.

The Easter revision market has expanded rapidly during the past 10 years, as the annual scramble for grades has become ever more frenetic to satisfy the demands of the top universities.

Wellington College has been running courses for the last 14 years; other independent schools, most notably Harrow, have now entered the fray, staking their good name on the quality of their product in a sector largely dominated by specialised tutorial colleges.

The schools trade on the fact that for a fraction of their annual fee (pounds 13,000 in the case of Harrow), a wide variety of pupils can enjoy the public school experience for a week or two.

After a pilot run last Easter, Harrow is offering a full range of courses, from a single half-day module (pounds 50) to a week's residential course involving one or two subjects (around pounds 600).

The 400-year-old school has striven since the early Eighties to boost coffers by raising extracurricular income from its ample and gracious facilities, but it regards its emergence as an Easter revision provider as a long-term investment.

Simon Hughes, the school's business manager, says: "If you set out with the idea simply to make money, then you would end up with nothing like what we are offering at Harrow. We're not making money currently; we're concentrating on getting the quality right."

The key ingredients, he says, are good staff, and courses tailored to students' needs. Harrow uses its own staff wherever possible, but owing to the range of boards and subjects on offer, it has to take some staff from outside. He asks: "How do you get good staff? You pay them well, and make sure they have instant access to resources. We set aside an entire boarding house for them. All of those teaching last year have wanted to come back. Staff are interviewed by our own heads of department and inspected during the course of their work. A high proportion are examiners in their own right."

Unlike many Easter revision courses, which teach to the core syllabus of subjects, Harrow's revision teaching caters for particular boards. "It's more costly to provide, but it must be more effective," says Mr Hughes. Before arriving at Harrow, students are also asked to fill in a form, specifying the problems they are having. "This way tutors can prepare for the pupils they are going to have, rather than spending the first morning on a fact-finding exercise."

Harrow also provides student accommodation in its boarding houses, with the sexes separated, and the full range of its pastoral resources is available, including sporting facilities.

The "cosy" nature of provision at Harrow was a chief attraction for Mrs Bridie Collins, whose daughter Anna, lacking in confidence and panicking about her combined science GCSE, attended last year. Anna had been predicted to get a C by her state Catholic girls' school in west London, but was convinced she would score below. Mrs Collins says, "The residential element was a deciding factor. I felt it would be more intimate, more supportive for Anna. She was very impressed. She felt they really did care, and the change in her attitude was remarkable. It was invaluable in her case." Anna was given a report at the end of the week which pointed out areas she needed to work on. In the end she got a B. Mrs Collins says, "Anna might have got a B without going to Harrow - we don't know - but it was the effect on her confidence which made the expense worthwhile."

Nick Jones, the director of Easter revision at Wellington, is convinced that the pastoral structures offered by the college are an aid to support and concentration. Some children attend Wellington "scrabbling for a D or an E, others to ensure a string of As". So why does a child who has been well taught at a good school need Easter revision? Mr Jones says: "People may think that all pupils need is a darkened room over the Easter holidays, but a lot do not have the drive, or the revision skills. At Wellington, even non-residential children don't finish until 9pm."

But it's not all slog. The recreational life of the public school is incorporated into the package. Mr Jones says, "A typical day for an A- level student would be lessons from 9am to 1pm with a break. Then lunch. Then for two hours in the afternoon they have full use of Wellington's facilities - swimming, football, walks etc. From 4pm to 6pm it's supervised prep. Then tea. Lessons start again from 7pm to 9pm. Residential children have a soft drinks bar, or they can go out, and they are back by 10.30pm in the boarding houses. It's intense, but it's balanced and we think it works."

They also think it's good value for money; an upper-sixth A-level or two-subject GCSE week's residential course costs pounds 430. By and large, Mr Jones estimates that most children will improve by a grade by attending Wellington, though there's always the caveat that they might have improved under their own steam. What they certainly gain, he says, are added study skills. The school uses 50 per cent of its own staff and heads of department or deputy heads from other schools, many of whom, again, are professional examiners. Last year the school attracted 469 students, its highest number, with 81 separate courses on offer. Class groups are six on average, and "never more than eight". "We don't want to get any bigger," said Mr Jones. "We have a good atmosphere and we don't want to turn it into big business. This is a small to medium-sized affair, which says that Wellington is a good school. We can't afford to mess with that."

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