The revisionist approach to Easter

OK, it's meant to be a holiday - but using the time to revise will boost exam grades. Clare Hargreaves looks at revision courses
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The Independent Online

There will be little time for GCSE and sixth-form students to savour their Easter eggs this year: with the increasing pressure to achieve excellent grades at GCSE, AS and A-level to get into top universities, revising during the Easter holidays is becoming critically important.

The prospect of three weeks of confinement with piles of books can be daunting for all but the super-organised. But for those who can afford it, help is on hand in the form of Easter revision courses. Students are put through a punishing, highly structured schedule of revising selected subjects and polishing exam technique.

It's tough – many students work 40 hours a week – but it can be fun, too. Gone are school bells, detentions and uniforms. Instead, students are treated like adults and are on first-name terms with teachers.

"On their own, students can sit in a stew and panic. Often they do much better when the revision is guided. They enjoy it, too, it's a big change from school," says Sami Cohen, the principal of d'Overbroeck's College in Oxford, which has run Easter revision courses for more than 20 years.

"At this age, students often find it hard to be disciplined," says Jim Burnett, the principal of London-based Mander Portman Woodward. "They tend to revise things they like, whereas they should really concentrate on the areas they don't like or are weak in. We teach students to be honest with themselves."

A one-week non-residential full-time course, in which students usually study two subjects, costs £500-£600, about the cost of a week's skiing. But it's money well spent, says Martin Sweatman, whose son Thomas did a revision course at Harrow last year and raised his Spanish A-level grade from a C in the mock to a B. "The course gave him confidence. He was able to walk into the exam knowing what to do. We got value for our money."

A new approach and/or teacher can make all the difference, says Richard Leathes, the director of Gabbitas Educational Consultants. "Some students have underachieved because they didn't hit it off with a teacher, or they just missed the point. With a new teacher, the light may switch on and things fall into place."

The key – and the area where specialist courses have an edge over regular schools – is honing exam technique. "You can know a subject back to front, but if you can't get this across in the exam and answer the question, it's useless," says Mr Leathes. Most courses include a daily exam of up to an hour so that students are well used to the sight of an exam paper when the real day arrives. Courses boost motivation and, often to students' surprise, are enjoyable. Friendships are forged. "If the whole process is fun, and the student enjoys it, they're more likely to absorb a subject and stop it becoming stale," says Teresa Waller-Bridge, the registrar at Davies Laing & Dick in London.

Feedback from students and parents suggests that most get the results they hope for. But Mr Leathes sounds a note of caution. "Revision courses are not a remedy for the sins of the past six months," he says. "If a student has not been working hard enough, this won't be a miracle quick fix."

Still, increasing numbers of students are enrolling on Easter revision courses at all levels. Why? Partly because the top universities are demanding higher grades (some say because A-levels are getting easier), especially for vets and medics, and partly because of the changes in the A-level system that mean that both sixth-form years feature public exams.

So colleges have adapted. "Easter revision courses used to target GCSE and upper-sixth students. Now they also target lower-sixth students because universities are looking at AS grades and these now represent 50 per cent of the final A-level result," Mr Cohen says. Courses in some subjects are now board-specific, too. This is particularly important as, under the new AS/A2 system, there is more variation between boards, and it's harder to run "catch-all" revision courses.

Independent schools such as Wellington, Harrow and Bradfield are getting in on the act, seeing it as a useful way to boost funds. Their advantage is that they can offer boarding facilities so students are removed from everyday temptations, and they are away from central London. They can also use some of the school's own teachers. Harrow, now in its sixth year, saw applications double between 1998 and 1999.

So how do you choose a college? As there is no regulatory body, it's vital to make enquiries. Check its track record; has it been running courses for some years, and are its teachers experienced in teaching exam technique? Second, make sure the course really suits your child's needs. Check it covers the subject and the exam board you require. The college should ask for your exact requirements.

Third, find out about class sizes: these should be around six, certainly no larger than eight. Fourth, ascertain how many teaching hours they offer. And finally, find out if the college is a member of a professional association such as the Independent Schools Council or the Conference for Independent Further Education.

But don't send your offspring on so many courses that they start the Easter term exhausted. If the college offers three weeks of courses, enrol for one or two at the most. "There's nothing worse than getting to exams tired," warns Richard Leathes. "Students should start the summer term fresh and confident. I'd say to them what I'd say to an athlete: don't peak too soon."

And leave a little time to enjoy those Easter eggs.