Easter revision: Learn exactly what you need to know

It's now more important than ever that students achieve the required grades
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Easter break has always been an ideal time to get a head-start on exam revision, but now the pressure is really on. Good GCSE and A-level grades are more important than ever, according to rhe Conference of Independent Further Education (CIFE), and university admission requirements are getting tougher every year.

"People are anticipating very few places in clearing this year and so students have to be realistic," says Fiona Pocock, chairman of the CIFE. In the past a student might suspect they wouldn't get the grades they needed but would accept a Ucas offer anyway. Now if they don't get the grades, it's far less likely they will get a place.

Added to that, the first A* grades will be awarded this summer. While most universities aren't yet asking for these, it does mean students are under even more pressure to do well.

In that case, an Easter revision course could help. They offer the chance to work in a focused environment away from the distractions of home. It also means you're actively learning, rather than sitting on your bed flipping through old notes. It is hoped that students emerge feeling more confident and better equipped to sit exams, and best of all, you've got the bulk of your revision over with. But none of this comes cheap – courses cost from £350 to £500 per subject (more if it's residential).

Craig Halsall, director of education at Justin Craig Education, says it makes sense to do structured revision with expert support. "It's not that teachers aren't up to scratch; it's that students don't want more of the same. They like a different venue, a different teacher and a different approach, they find that refreshing."

Justin Craig runs three-day revision courses at 22 centres throughout England, with 4,000 students expected to enrol. A three-day centre course costs £385. The most popular subjects are maths, English and sciences, the "must have" subjects, especially at GCSE. Two-thirds of Justin Craig students got their predicted grades or higher last year. But if you're going to get your predicted grade, why bother forking out nearly £400?

Halsall quotes a parent whose son took a course last year. "She told me that a predicted grade means nothing unless it's there on a certificate when the results come out in August. Her son was predicted to do well, but she felt she couldn't take the chance. The demand for achieving predicted grades is the highest I've ever known it."

While money is tight for many families, last year was a record year for enrolments on Easter revision courses at Mander Portman Woodward, an independent sixth-form college with bases in London, Birmingham and Cambridge.

Its curriculum director, Steven Boyes, says the cost of taking a revision course pales into insignificance compared to the cost of retaking an exam. He adds that getting into a good university is more difficult and this trend is set to continue. But don't take a revision course in everything. Instead, target what you really need to know. "Some students bring in files with them on day one of the course, expecting more notes," he says. "They have the notes. Now they need to distil them, to understand how topics fit together and to get an overview."

At the independent sixth-form college Davies Laing and Dick, an A2 course costs £350 a subject, AS is £325 and GCSE is £300. Students can enrol for a whole course, or take a single unit for half the cost. The course director, Dave Dineen, says interest in Easter revision is higher than last year, partly because "clearing was a disaster and parents think their child has to get the grades they need or there won't be any university places left".

But if you're thinking of a course, find out what it will cover. Many AS and A2 levels are for a particular board and specification, so make sure the course covers the right content, question style, exam criteria and past papers. Also ask about class size and how the time on the course is split between teaching, exam practice and individual work. Will students' work be marked and will they get homework? Just as important, who are the tutors and what is their experience?

Craig Halsall, of Justin Craig Education, has a son who is in Year 10 and just about to take his first GCSE. And will he be on an Easter revision course next year? Halsall laughs: "He will be there at Easter, Christmas and May half-term!"

Mander Portman Woodward: www.mpw.co.uk; Davies Laing & Dick: www.dld.org; Justin Craig: www.justincraig.ac.uk; CIFE: www.cife.org.uk