The best Easter present of all

'Tis the season for revision courses, but don't count on them to pull rabbits out of hats, warns Emma Haughton
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The Independent Online

Easter revision courses are nothing new – some colleges have offered them for several decades – but there is no doubt that demand for them has picked up steadily over the last few years. With both years of the A-level course now involving exams, colleges are reporting increased interest from lower-sixth as well as upper-sixth students, and as competition for university places increases year on year, the pressure to get good results is more intense than ever.

"Parents and students are now keen to maximise grades at every level," says Gareth Thomas, Easter revision course director at Davies, Laing & Dick in London, which takes on some 400 students a year for the Easter break. "A lot of GCSE students are looking for an A*, which is important for their Ucas application in two years' time, whereas A-level students want to make sure they gain entry to the university of their choice. Two weeks' worth of revision can make that day in August when the results come out much happier."

The whole notion of Easter crammers is also being given the thumbs-up by schools, points out James Burnett, principal of London-based tutorial college Mander Portman Woodward. "Ten years ago, schools were reluctant to recommend Easter revision courses because they saw them as interfering in what they were doing, but since the advent of league tables, schools have become very keen for students to attend. We work quite closely with schools now, and sometimes even put on courses for them if they have a specific group that needs a boost."

Easter revision has also become more focused, with many tutorial colleges over the last few years making efforts to tailor their courses to cater for specific examining boards. "We want to avoid students wasting time or becoming confused by covering material that is not relevant," says Burnett. "The various boards have different ways of approaching the same topics. Take wave pattern in physics, for example – all the exam boards go into it in different depth and in different ways."

So what actually happens on a course? Most GCSE courses involve the equivalent of two -and-a-half to three days of study, and a full week for A-level, with students commonly working from 9am to 5.30pm or 6pm. It is very intensive, admits Thomas, but they benefit greatly from being in a more structured environment.

"Students of that age do not necessarily work those sorts of hours every day during the Easter holiday, so this way we do make sure that they cover a great deal. Firstly, we go right through the syllabus, clarifying and in some cases even demystifying topics. Thereafter, it's about exam practice, going through papers, teaching them how to answer questions effectively in timed conditions."

The emphasis at most tutorial colleges is on how to maximise the student's effectiveness in the actual exam. Although students go through the syllabus in a very structured way, it is always with their performance on the day firmly in mind, using a mixture of regular testing, looking over past questions and papers, along with specimen answers from the examination boards.

But the aim is not just to give students a lot of exam preparation and revision, says Sami Cohen, principal of d'Overbroeck's College in Oxford. "We hope to send them off feeling more cheerful and confident. They get to spend several days concentrating on a subject within a small group and with a teacher devoted to helping them through any difficulties, and they can pull together all the strands of a subject and see the important bits. Most of the information they are going to need is already there in their heads, but it needs to be pulled into sharper focus."

The college also aims to make students much better able to organise their time beyond the confines of their course, he says: "It's about helping them with their revision term, giving them a strategy on how to structure it. The Easter holidays are a critical time for revision, and left to their own devices, most students achieve a lot less."

None of this comes particularly cheap, of course, with prices ranging from around £270 to £350 for half a week, and up to £600 for a full week. And ultimately, no tutorial college can help a weak student pull a rabbit out of a hat, points out Burnett. "If someone has not done any work for a year and a half and thinks a course will cure all their problems, it won't," he says emphatically.

"If you have let yourself get behind, a two-week course isn't going to solve anything. It's really for people who have actually covered all the material."