THE PHENOMENAL rise in the number of young - and not-so-young - people entering higher education, together with the introduction of university league tables, has brought a business boom for tutorial colleges, often better known as "crammers". Parents who want Charles or Charlene to go to a "good" university often fear they might not reach the required grades. So it's off to a crammer for them! Sixth formers hoping for a much-coveted place in a medical or veterinary school know they won't make it without a string of high grades. So they, too, sign on.
Useful places, crammers, either as full-time sixth form colleges teaching two-year A-level syllabuses, or as rescuers of students who have pipped GCSEs or A-levels first time round and are planning to re-take them.
They're all at it. Walk into any half-decent secondary school and you will find them running Easter revision courses for both GCSEs and A-levels. Teachers can make an extra pounds 100 a day out of their school budget for providing additional tuition during the Easter vac. State school pupils, of course, pay nothing. Independent tutorial college fees vary enormously, ranging from about pounds 300 per subject per week (non-residential) to around pounds 500 (residential).
But before you rush to your nearest crammer, ask yourself a few relevant questions, such as is your child (a) capable of working hard enough to warrant a tough course, and (b) is he or she really studying the right subjects in preparation for a further three or more years at a university? If your answer is no to either or both these questions, forget it. No crammer, whatever the claims made by brochures, will be able to turn academic ducks into swans.
And if you are not sure about the answers, it might be worth letting Charles or Charlene face someone like Alexis Hallam, an occupational psychologist with Career Analysts. "We can advise parents if their children are not of A-level calibre and, if they are, whether they are on the right track or whether they might be better suited to another route," she told me. "Often youngsters are being made to go through a process of living out someone else's values - their parents or teachers."
Assuming the student is on the right wavelength and knows what course to take at college or university, but has certain weaknesses in French or maths or whatever, then it is worth considering a tutorial college. But which? And where? Until comparatively recently, crammer-hungry students had to journey to London, Oxford or Cambridge. This situation is changing. Colleges may now be found in a number of cities, notably Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol, though there is still a surprising lack of them north of Manchester.
Don't go to the first you spot in the window of your local newsagent. If you are seeking a competent career analyst, first go to the British Psychological Society, who will provide you with the names of those on their Register of Occupational Testers. And if you want a competent tutorial college, you will need to know exactly which have the official stamp of approval. You also need to know which examining board syllabus the student is following. It's no use cramming King Lear if the Shakespeare set by your son's or daughter's board is Macbeth.
Gabbitas Educational Consultants will happily advise callers on what is available, which syllabuses are being followed and where they are. Then there is CIFE - the Conference for Independent Further Education - whose 33 members have been fully inspected and by either the British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education or the Independent Schools' Council.
But even if you are armed with your list of super colleges, and have picked the one you think will do the job - i.e. improve a prospective Grade C to a B or even A - you should still be wary. After all, you are about to part with a lot of cash, so, apart from making sure you can afford it, ask the college a few pertinent questions: like who is the tutor taking the subject in question - is he or she a full member of the college staff or imported specially for Easter revision; if it is a residential college, what is the level of pastoral care; what is done in the evenings; and will there be a detailed report at the end of the course?
"Some people think they can go to a college and cram two years of work into one week," Erie Sneddon, education and careers consultant with Gabbitas declared. "This isn't a quick fix, but a boost in the subjects where the student is really worried. If a student is not prepared to work hard, no tutorial college can make him succeed."
Many accredited institutions boast a splendid track record. Take Cambridge Tutors College, which happens to be in leafy South Croydon. When the Oxford examining board announced its special awards to the six best students last June, five of them had been put through their paces by that college. Its 250 students come from all parts of the world, and most are studying for their A-levels full-time (last year's top-of-the-pops was a young man from Myanmar, Burma, who walked into Oxford University with five A- levels at Grade A).
David Lowe, principal of Cambridge Tutors, and chairman elect of CIFE, explained that its revision courses are held in the evenings over a six- week period, plus day workshops during the holidays. "We get about 40- 50 students and put them into groups of five or six."
It would be wrong to believe that tutorial colleges are the exclusive domain of the independent sector. According to Elizabeth Cottrell, secretary of CIFE, an increasing number of students come from the maintained sector. "State school parents are willing to pay to give their children the opportunity of improving grades.
"I have also been impressed by the number of people who are using expensive schools but remain dissatisfied with the standards reached and willing to pay more money to improve them." Aspirations are certainly high.
Career Analysts, 90 Gloucester Place, London W1H 4BL, 0171-935 5452; Gabbitas, Carrington House, 126-130 Regent Street, London W1R 6EE, 0171- 734 0161; CIFE, Flat 2, 295 Ladbroke Grove, London W10 6HE, 0181-969 0324; Cambridge Tutors College, Water Tower Hill, Croydon CR0 5SX, 0181-688 5284
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