Learning from your mistakes

Been there, done that, didn't get the T-shirt? Retakes are never popular but often deliver the goods. By Mary Braid
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The Independent Online

So the A-level results have arrived and they are not what you had thought, hoped, or, in the most desperate cases, prayed, they would be. Once you have absorbed the shock, do you forget university, root around for a Clearing place or resit your exams? For many, the latter will seem the most emotionally and financially costly option.

Imagine having to go through all that again, particularly when all your friends have moved on to grown-up student life and keep dropping you postcards, littered with references to Descartes and Derrida and describing the fun it is to prop up the union bar night after night. And imagine, to boot, having to pay thousands of pounds for the privilege of your A-level Groundhog Day, given that state schools will only have you back for retakes under special circumstances, such as illness, leaving FE colleges as the other main retake route.

James Burnett, principal of private tutorial college, Mander Portman Woodward (MPW), which operates in Birmingham, Cambridge and London, recommends that young people only resit after very careful consideration, and painstaking elimination of other options.

"We have people who come to see us about resitting right after their results," says Burnett. "We tell them that the first thing they ought to do is get in touch with the school and the university concerned. If a grade has just been missed, there is a lot that can be done to make a retake unnecessary. Teachers can lobby the university on a pupil's behalf, explaining that he or she would be able to cope with its course. Failing that, there are a lot of good clearing places around."

Burnett says he is not trying to do himself out of business; he is simply anxious to make sure that those who resit are making the right decision, for the right reasons. The students who do end up retaking at MPW tend to be absolutely focused on one course - usually medicine, law and the other professions - or on a particular university, or to have uniformly underperformed at A-level due to illness or personal problems, or because they underestimated the leap from GCSE to A-level.

"People have to think hard about why they want to resit," says Burnett. "Some students are so focused and determined that they will definitely see a resit course through. But you really have to want to try again. It's no good doing it just because it is what Mum and Dad want."

Focused hard workers, however, are not the only successful resitters. Reformed slackers can also emerge winners. "Those who admit they did not work hard enough are great to deal with," says Burnett.

Elizabeth Rickards, principal of London tutorial college, Davies Laing & Dick (DLD), agrees. "We see students whose confidence is really knocked," she says. "And we also see students who simply say it's a fair cop, and that they did not work hard enough first time round. Those students don't just tend to get better grades but they learn the technique of work and study. Three or four months in a tutorial college can really fix your work technique."

Burnett advises those considering resitting to first find out if their chosen university will take them next year if they achieve the grades originally required. That's because some university courses will not consider retake candidates - however well they do second-time round - and others will up the grades originally asked for. However, many - including some medical schools - take a very positive approach and see a determined and successful retake as a sign of "stickability", says Rickards.

Once that's been cleared up, the mechanics of an A-level retake have to be carefully considered. The A-level has changed beyond all recognition since the introduction of modular courses four years ago. Courses now divide into six units - three taken, and examined, in the AS-level year and three in the A2 year. Exam grades can be banked and any unit resat along the way to improve the overall grade.

Modules also make retaking less time-consuming - and therefore less expensive. Students need only resit those modules where marks were poor, though Rickards warns that not everyone can up their grades with a short one- or two-unit resit and that some still require a full year.

Despite these pluses for students, the modular approach can also mean some rather tricky decisions about what to focus on at retake. What tutorial colleges pride themselves in is their ability to devise a tailor-made retake programme after an analysis of previous performance in various units and a candidate's inherent strengths.

Burnett says what has to be remembered is that while AS-levels are easier than A2s, the modules in each are worth exactly the same. "It's important that a students consider resitting units from the AS year," says Burnett. "An A grade requires 480 marks out of 600 - 100 marks a unit - and it doesn't matter how you get that. We also think if you are going to resit one unit then, unless you did absolutely brilliantly in the other five, it is best to do two to maximise your chances of getting the extra marks overall."

A private-sector, tailor-made, second chance does not come cheap. MPW will charge £4,739 a term to retake three A2 subjects over a year, and £1,853 per single A2 subject a term in the same condition. The charges are lower for AS-levels. Short retake courses run from September to January or January to June and cost £2,783 per subject. DLD's charges are similar.

Prohibitively expensive? The private sector offers one other alternative - retake by correspondence course. Mark Stafford, of Open Learning Centre International (OLCI; www.olcinternational.com), argues that distance learning, with your tutor at the end of a phone, is an effective cheap option. OLCI charges £319 per subject for a combined AS/A2 A-level and if they are taken separately, £165 for an AS and £219 for an A2.

It's certainly cheaper. What you have to ask yourself is do you have the initiative, application and self-motivation required for a correspondence course and a tutor you will never meet face to face? If you have, then that might be because your disappointing A-levels have served as a wake-up call. In the long run, you might look back at the first-time-around failure as a valuable lesson in life.

The Council for Independent Further Education's independent tutorial and sixth form colleges can be contacted directly. Secretary Dr Norma Ball can be contacted for advice on 020-8767 8666

'I felt I let myself down'

Daniel Moran, 19, from north London

I got two As and seven Bs in my GCSEs and I did that with just night-before cramming. I moved to sixth-form college to do AS-levels in biology, physics, maths and psychology. My mistake was to think I could leave studying just as late at A-level as I had a GCSE. I ended up with three Ds and an E.

The results hit me really hard. I looked around and thought what can you do these days with just GCSEs. What kind of money can you make in a job? I just felt I had to retake the AS exams. I had a friend at DLD. He was really impressed by the place and he said come in and have a look around. I spoke to Elizabeth Rickards and she said I had potential and just needed to apply myself. To be honest, I have been working my socks off ever since. I felt I let myself down before and that I was getting too old to mess things up.

I resat my AS levels last year and this time got two As (maths and biology) and two Bs (physics and psychology). I turned things around. Now I am waiting for the results of my three A2 levels and I'm hoping to do well. I have been accepted to do optometry at Cardiff or City and I need at least one A and two Bs.

Going to a private tutorial college for two years has been very expensive. My mum is a widow and I am an only child. She has had to dip into her savings but she feels it has been worth it."

'I tried grovelling but it didn't work. They said I had to retake'

Hayley Jordan, 19, from Buckinghamshire

I sat three A-levels and one AS-level last year, and needed ABB in the A-levels to get into Bath to do architecture. I got a B in my AS chemistry and AAD in my A-levels. It was physics that was my disaster.

I tried grovelling with Bath but it didn't work. They said I had to retake. I did not bother with Clearing because I was absolutely set on doing architecture. So I went to DLD for a one-term short course in physics and in the exams in January, I improved from a D to an A. I'm going to Bath to do architecture this autumn.

The problem was that I had not really appreciated that I wasn't understanding the physics. Looking back, I only understood the gist. I'm glad I didn't go through Clearing because in the end I got where I wanted to go.

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