Holly Allen Cooper, 18, is a model student. Bright, articulate and hard-working, she achieved eight A-star grades in her GCSEs and has won a place at the Cooper Union, a prestigious arts, architecture and engineering college in New York.
Holly attributes her success to the independent further education day college where she is taking A-levels in maths, history and art: Lansdowne College in west London. "The application process for an American university was incredibly complicated," she says. "People at the college dropped everything to help me, even staying behind until 8pm so that we could make sure all the forms were filled out properly."
Twenty years ago, independent further education colleges such as Lansdowne were seen as "crammers", to which despairing parents would pack off their children to retake failed exams. Not, in other words, where you'd expect to find a star student like Holly.
But those involved in the sector say this is an outdated stereotype. "There's a feeling that we're for drop-outs and spoilt rich kids. That's absolutely not true," says Dr Norma Ball, secretary of the Council for Independent Further Education Colleges (CIFE). "The most recent annual statistics show that 1,603 CIFE students were accepted on to degree courses. And we get a cross-section of children. Almost all our colleges have bursary and scholarship funds to help kids where they see a need. "
Independent further education colleges have long since branched out. Nowadays, they take many youngsters who want to study for A-levels while benefiting from the excellent academic records and small classes such institutions can offer. Many run successful Easter revision courses, and take GCSE students too.
"Retakes are a very small part of what we do these days," says Andy Thompson, the principal of Cherwell College in Oxford, where a year of one-to-one A-level tuition costs £20,000 with accommodation, or about £13,500 without. "There's been a metamorphosis. Most of our students now are on two-year A-level courses. People are saying, 'Hey, this system works. Why don't we do it like this the first time round?'"
Youngsters studying for retakes at the college, says Thompson, "tend to be high-achieving students who have just missed out on their university choice".
The colleges certainly tend to get stellar results. Ball points out that CIFE students have recently notched up a glittering array of accolades.
In 2005, five students at CIFE colleges secured top-five places in the country in examinations moderated by the Assessment and Qualification Alliance, the largest awarding body in the country. Nine CIFE students came in the top 10 for the Edexcel exams.
Gary Hunter is the vice-principal of Lansdowne College, where a year's A-level tuition costs £13,500 (not including accommodation, as Lansdowne is a day college). He says that the secret of the success of independent further education colleges is in making sure that "the students feel involved in the education process - that they are not just passive recipients. It's a partnership."
That translates into monthly meetings with tutors to discuss the students' performances and to make sure that they aren't struggling with homework, plus school reports every half-term for parents.
At the same time, there's an element of freedom. Students can come and go from college according to their timetable and are often on first-name terms with staff. "We're not slack," Hunter says, "but we do try to combine structure with some of the things that are important when you're 17 years old."
Thompson says that A-levels are an especially important time in young people's lives, and he feels that independent colleges can give them crucial support. "We try to give students time to think about who they are and where they're going. It's a stepping stone between school and university, where they can pause and make some sense of the great flurry of education."
Holly says that individual attention was a big factor in her choice to study at an independent further education college. "If the college doesn't offer a subject you want to do, they can organise for someone to teach it. I wanted to do an AS-level in classical civilisation last year, and even though there were only two of us in the class, they were able to teach it. It's amazing to get reports that are so personal."
Being able to build close relationships with her teachers encouraged her to focus on learning, she explains. "It works on the basis of mutual respect. The teachers teach you with respect, and you feel personally accountable."
For information about choosing a CIFE college, call the helpline on 020-8767 8666Reuse content