Special Report on Courses: Revise those ideas about cramming: Don't mock, swot. Intensive courses at Easter can transform exam results. Jane Martinson points out the benefits and some pitfalls

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The Independent Online
KEVIN BUSSELL was devastated when he failed his mock physics exam. Teachers at his independent school, Rossall, in Lancashire, advised him to drop physics A-level for an AS-level, equivalent to about half an A-level. His hopes for a place at university receded.

His mother, Cath, suggested an Easter revision course at an independent sixth-form college in Birmingham. She says: 'He wasn't really keen on the course when I first suggested it but he was so appalled by his mock that he said he needed help.' Kevin passed his physics A-level with a D grade.

He says the course was hard work but that he learnt more in one week than he had at school in his first year of the A-level. 'I think these courses are useful,' he says, 'because of the huge gap between A-levels and GCSEs. I passed my GGSE with no real problem but when I started A-level I didn't know what had hit me.' He is now studying mineral engineering at Leeds University.

More and more parents are willing to pay between pounds 300 and pounds 400 for intensive revision courses during the Easter holidays. Most are already paying fees at independent schools. A very few come from state schools. The number of courses at one well-established London school, Mander Portman and Woodward, has increased by almost 150 per cent in just three years. The amount spent on these courses by an estimated 7,000 students each year is around pounds 2.5m.

There are many reasons for this increase, particularly in A-level courses. The expansion in higher education places in recent years caused a boom in the numbers of A-level students. Applications to the Universities Central Council on Admissions (Ucca) rose by 39 per cent between 1988 and 1992. Faced with high demand universities made entrance dependent on higher grades. For sixth-formers who need to achieve these grades, extra courses appear more and more attractive. Low grades in mock exams combined with a short summer term push many into swotting at Easter.

Gerald Hattee, principal of Collingham, an independent sixth-form college, and chairman of the Conference for Independent Further Education (Cife), says that Easter is one of the most satisfying times to be teaching. The element of 'death-bed repentance' is minimal and most students are 'motivated and want to succeed'.

He says that the change of scenery involved in studying at a college rather than school can be an advantage. 'Your teacher may be extremely good but a new mind or new approach can help enormously.' Students suffering from stress may feel happier in the more structured atmosphere of a college and the course can boost confidence. Students feel less embarrassed over asking about basic concepts than they do at at school. 'A student can ask what the legislature means, for example, when studying for a politics A-level. Or appeasement in history. They feel able to do this with a relative stranger but would probably feel awkward asking their teacher because the teacher may feel aggrieved.'

But there are pitfalls. With the burgeoning number of courses available, parents would be wise to go armed with a checklist when looking for a suitable course. There are at least 120 independent sixth- form colleges in the UK. Only 40 of these 'crammers' are accredited to the British Accreditation Council for Independent and Further Education.

Mander Portman Woodward has offered Easter revision courses for the past five years. Joe Ruston, the chairman, says: 'When we started, revision courses were a very small part of the work of independent colleges. Suddenly, the number of people asking us to do them exploded. It still is a new phenomenon and a booming one.' The numbers of students at MPW's London branch increased from 170 in 1991 to 369 last year.

As Mr Ruston puts it: 'There's nothing to stop somebody hiring a hall and some teachers on holiday and running courses. Students may not come back the next year but during that time, with people paying pounds 400 each, there is obviously an opportunity for them to make a killing. There are just too many things which can go wrong for this to be satisfactory. In the early days of all colleges there are going to be nightmares. Tutors can turn out to be not as good as they seemed at interview, facilities can be lacking. With students only coming for a week, if something goes wrong it's serious.'

The BAG produce a list of accredited sixth-form colleges. The education consultants Gabbitas, Truman and Thring also provide a free recommendation service to parents and young people on which colleges may be worth considering. Consultants visit colleges regularly to check on standards. Wendy Johnson, marketing manager at Gabbitas, says that it is important to ensure courses meet individual needs as far as possible and also to check that they are either BAG-

accredited or members of Cife.

There are questions which need to be answered before choosing a course. Parents should know how many hours classwork and homework will be provided and whether the course covers exam practice. They should know how big the classes are (most colleges it is between eight and ten). They should ask about the teachers' qualifications and experience and also what proportion are full-time. The specific syllabus required should be covered and the course should not be too general. Some colleges divide the classes by syllabus. Parents should ask if help will be given with revision and whether advice will be available after the course ends.

Facilities vary. Many independent schools are residential. Millfield and Wellington's facilities include horse riding and golf.

Julia Cox, MPW's course director in London, says students and their parents should realise what a course will not provide. 'Easter revision is not a quick fix for students who have done little or no work at school. We do not pretend to teach the whole syllabus from scratch in a week.'

Useful numbers: The British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education (071-935 9947). Gabbitas, Truman and Thring

(071-734 0161).

(Photograph omitted)