Make holidays work

The pressure for ever better exam results means that students are enrolling for Easter revision courses to give them the edge, says Clare Hargreaves

A growing number of GCSE and sixth form students will be forsaking the ski slopes this Easter in favour of a more serious activity: attending a revision course. "This is a crucial period of revision and will play a pivotal part in a student's final grade," says Sami Cohen, the director of d'Overbroeck's College in Oxford, which has been running easter revision courses since 1977.

Getting revision right is increasingly important as top universities demand ever higher grades, particularly in subjects like medicine, veterinary science and law. "Universities are ever more choosy about whom they accept," says Cohen. Once, only A-level grades were important; now AS grades are, too. Not only do they count towards A2 grades, but if a student does exceptionally well at AS-level, their tutor can mention this on their university application.

But do parents really need to cough up hundreds of pounds to send their offspring on structured courses of revision? The answer in most cases - if they can afford it - is, probably, yes. The prospect of three weeks of solitary confinement with note-crammed files is daunting for all but the most disciplined of students, and few know how to use the time effectively. Easter revision courses, on the other hand, provide tuition in subjects in which the student is weak and tips on polishing exam technique for up to 40 hours a week. Most schools provide five half-days a week per subject, so students can study two subjects at a time.

"Many parents are worried not that their children don't know a subject, but that their lack of organisational skills will trip them up," says Shafiq Fakir, the course director of Easter revision at London-based Davies Laing & Dick College (DLD), one of the big names in the field. "An Easter revision course is an insurance policy that gives everybody confidence and peace of mind."

Steven Boyes, the principal of Mander Portman Woodward (MPW), agrees. "We help students distil the information and prioritise topics. It's difficult for them to do this on their own. Easter revision is also a good way of filling any gaps and identifying core concepts that a student hasn't understood."

A new approach can make a subject click into place, adds Fakir. At their own school, a student may not get on with a particular teacher, or there may not be time to go over a specific subject. "When they have a new teacher and something is explained in a different way, this can often do the trick."

With luck, this will mean the difference of a grade (or even two), provided the student has worked consistently during the year. If they've idled their school days away, however, it's too late to catch up.

Success does not come cheap, though: a one-week non-residential full- time course, during which a student studies two subjects, costs about pounds 600 - roughly the cost of a week's skiing. But it's money well spent, according to Dominic Alcock, who upped his grades in GCSE science from a B in the mocks to an A in the real thing, after doing a course at d'Overbroeck's last year. He's now hoping to read medicine. In English, too, his grades leapt from a predicted D to a B. "The small classes really helped: there were only five or six of us so I got a lot of individual attention," says Alcock. "At my school, I had 30 in my class so the teachers didn't have time to explain things. The course also taught me how to plan my revision more efficiently."

The key is honing exam technique - and this is where specialist colleges have the edge over schools. Most Easter revision courses set students daily exams, with results and feedback the following day. "A student may know his or her subject but be hopeless on exam technique," says Cohen. "Learning that technique is the most valuable thing we can offer. There's no way you can learn that on your own."

To some students' surprise, the whole experience can be fun, too. Gone are detentions, school bells and uniforms. Students are treated more like adults, they're on first-name terms with tutors, and are freed from the day-to-day niggles of school life. Some colleges also lay on sports activities in the evenings, adding to the sociability of the experience.

There's a demand for Easter revision courses at GCSE level, too - half of DLD's students, for example, come from this age group. Fakir believes this is partly because many schools don't allow you to take a subject at A-level unless you achieve at least a C grade at GCSE. He adds that many schools actively encourage their students to attend Easter revision courses because it enhances their own league table ratings.

Easter revision doesn't just help schools with their ratings, either. Independent schools, like Taunton School, Harrow and Bradfield College, see the courses as a useful way to boost funds. They have an advantage in being able to offer boarding facilities so that students are removed from everyday temptations, they are in areas other than London, and they often use some of the school's teachers. Harrow, for instance, is now in its ninth year. Recently, state schools have started offering Easter revision courses, too.

Selecting the most appropriate course can be a daunting task, however. It's vital that both students and parents do their homework thoroughly before choosing an institution. If possible, go in and talk to the tutors. First, check out a college's track record. Have they been running courses for some years and are their teachers experienced in teaching exam technique? The top names are MPW, DLD, Abbey and d'Overbroeck's. "This is a tough course to teach," says Boyes, from MPW. "Distillation is a real skill. Find out where a college gets its tutors from and what experience they have." If in doubt, contact an educational consultant, such as Gabbitas, for advice.

Second, check that the college does the subjects you require, and, if possible, follows the same examination board. The college should ask what your exact requirements are. If a student is doing English literature or history, for example, check that the course will cover the relevant set texts or period of history. If it doesn't, it's a waste of time. With science courses this is less likely to be a problem. If your child has an examination board that no one else has, certain colleges can lay on private tuition. Check that tutors can be contacted after the course so the student has some follow-up support.

Third, find out class sizes. There should be about six pupils, and certainly no more than eight (or nine, for GCSE). Fourth, check that your child likes the atmosphere and feels comfortable. If they don't they won't learn as well.

However worried you are about your children's results, enrol them for one or two weeks at the most. Don't forget that they have other subjects to revise, and that they need a holiday. "Freshness is as important as knowledge when it comes to doing exams," says Fakir. The motto is: swot hard, but leave time to enjoy those Easter eggs.

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