Why Easter is a crucial time for eggheads

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The Independent Online
The popularity of revision courses in spring is steadily increasing, says Simon Midgley, thanks to diligent parents who don't want their children to fall at the first fence.

The results of children's mock A- level and GCSE examinations are currently concentrating the minds of parents throughout the country. What, they are wondering, can be done to improve their offspring's performance in the real examinations later this year? One answer, albeit pricey, is to enrol their son or daughter on an Easter revision course run by a tutorial college or other organisation.

Most tutorial colleges in Britain, of which there are now around 50, run courses to help raise the performance of students who either risk complete failure, or need to achieve better grades to enrol on their chosen undergraduate course.

Easter revision courses are a relatively recent phenomenon. They first started some 15 years ago, and enrolment numbers have increased steadily ever since. The new market partly evolved in the wake of a mounting awareness among parents and pupils that high examination grades are increasingly important to be sure of securing a place at one of the better-known, if not better, universities.

In recent years GCSE and A-level results nationally have improved dramatically, which in turn has allowed the more highly rated university departments to raise their entrance requirements. The corollary to higher average grades and the massive expansion in the number of universities in Britain is that employers have become more choosy about which universities they recruit from.

Dr Nigel Stout, principal of Mander Portman Woodward College, the largest independent sixth form college in the country, says: "Ten years ago one saw people who had failed A-level mocks and were worried about failing the whole thing.

"Because of the public perception that it matters a good deal which kind of university one gets into, people are much more discerning about just going for gold all the time. We have people on Easter courses who are almost certain to achieve a B without any help from us, but who want to go the last mile.

"We do have people coming in on Easter courses worried about failing, but they form a smaller proportion."

The popularity of A-level revision courses has also been increased by the arrival of modular A-levels. This has led to demand from lower sixth as well as upper sixth and GCSE candidates.

Dr Stout says that children who have missed work through illness, or any other reason, can benefit especially from Easter courses, as can those who find it hard to revise.

Typically, tutorial colleges offer pupils the chance to study either one A-level subject or two GCSEs intensively for a week. Candidates wishing to revise two A-levels or up to four GCSEs should enrol for two weeks.

Some of the larger colleges prepare students not just simply for the same subject but for the same examination board by which they will be examined. Some of the smaller colleges are unable to be board-specific, but focus instead on core topics common to all exam syllabuses.

A-level candidates are normally advised against enrolling to revise for three A-levels because the workload is considered to be too heavy.

One A-level course at Mander Portman Woodward, for example, would involve the student studying for eight hours a day over a 40-hour week.

In small groups of six to 10, pupils spend six hours a day on a whistle- stop revision of the syllabus, and the remaining two hours working on exam papers and brushing up on exam technique. Candidates are trained to improve their answers in real-time exam conditions, and advised on which topics to revise first, and how to concentrate for prolonged periods of time. No homework is set during MPW revision courses, although it is set by some other colleges.

At Mander Portman Woodward's west-London-based college, around 25 A-level subjects are offered for revision. Art, theatre studies and laboratory- based scientific work are not available.

No interviews are required for the college's Easter revision courses. It is simply a matter of booking in. The college does, however, require students to attend regularly and to behave themselves. Those who fail to meet these conditions are asked to leave. The college will also not enrol students without permission from their schools.

It is difficult to quantify what difference attending a revision course really makes, because the students return to their schools after Easter to continue working for their exams.

However, MPW uses detailed questionnaires to try to ascertain satisfaction with its courses. More generally the college, which also runs full-time, one- and two-year GCSE and A-level courses and A-level retake courses, prides itself on its academic record.

In the last academic year, for example, of the college's total 679 A- level exam entries there were 178 passes at grade A, 192 Bs, 137 Cs, 83 Ds, 42Es and 47 fails at N or U.

The courses are expensive. Fees in the 30 colleges belonging to the professional association governing standards in independent sixth form and tutorial colleges, the Conference for Independent Further Education, range from pounds 400 to pounds 520 for a one-week A-level course and from pounds 200 to pounds 280 for a one-week GCSE course.

These 30 colleges are inspected and recognised by the British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education (BAC). Of the 50 national colleges, 36 are also registered with the Department for Education and Employment as independent schools, because they prepare pre-16-year- old children for GCSEs. As such, the latter will also be subject to regular inspections by Ofsted. Four colleges - the Cambridge Centre For Sixth Form Studies, Hurtwood House in Surrey, d'Overbroeck's in Oxford, and MPW - are also accredited by the Independent Schools Joint Council (ISJC).

Colleges are to be found throughout England but they are concentrated in London, Oxford and Cambridge. The main residential centres are in Oxford and Cambridge.

For a list of all Cife colleges contact Miles Glover, secretary, at Bucknall Farm, Bull Lane, Bethesden, Kent, TN26 3HB (01233 820797).

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