Top of the swots

Christmas revision courses are a growing business, but are they good value? Audrey Ward investigates

9 December 2012
The Sunday Times

Hannah Bilgore is looking forward to a family skiing holiday this Christmas but knows that after she hits the French slopes she has an exams hurdle to face. Due to sit her biology A-level in January, the 19-year-old needs to do some swotting before she goes.

“I find it difficult to work at home. I get distracted watching TV,” she explains, which is why she has signed up for a three-day revision course at Mander Portman Woodward (MPW) in London.

Bilgore is not alone. Across the country students will be knuckling down to work over the Christmas holidays in an attempt to get good grades in their GCSE and A-level modules. They, too, will be seeking help from tutorial firms or private tutors and their parents will be footing the bill.

But are such courses really good value for money? Melanie Entwistle, 19, who is in her first year at Sussex University reading Spanish and Italian, thinks they can be. She travelled from her home in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, to London for a revision course at Tutor House last Christmas. Initially Melanie signed up for a day of Spanish. “I was put off by the price,” says her mother Jill, who was writing the cheque. ” ‘Oh, my goodness,’ you think, but it was five hours of tailored tutoring.”

Her daughter’s enthusiasm after the first day reassured her that it was worth paying for a second.

“The course was for just two students: Melanie and her friend,” says Jill. “The tutor uncovered that Melanie hadn’t been taught certain tenses: there were things she should have known without even being aware of it. She came home absolutely exhausted but saying, ‘Please can I go for another day?’ ” Revision courses don’t come cheap. Tutor House’s Christmas offering costs £675 for four full days of a chosen subject. MPW, which in the past offered only Easter revision courses, has this year introduced ones over Christmas at its bases in London and Birmingham. Its three-day morning or afternoon courses will set you back £381.

According to Steven Boyes, principal of MPW London, the decision to introduce the Christmas revision course was made before the government’s announcement that January AS exams will be scrapped from 2014. However, he feels the impact of university fees hitting £9,000 a year has more clearly defined the idea that the university you attend matters and is making students think about Christmas revision.

“If you’re going to be paying that kind of money, you want to go to a university that is really good. Most of our revision course students are aiming for Russell Group universities and they’re striving for As rather than Bs or Cs,” he says.

A more flexible alternative to a course is to hire a private tutor. Will Entwistle, Melanie’s younger brother, is seeing one every two weeks to boost his biology in the run-up to an A2 January resit. Will, a year 13 pupil at a state school, says: “He helps me with my approach to revision in general. Now rather than just reading through my notes, I answer questions from past papers as I go along. It’s not just biology that has benefited.”

The tuition costs more than average at £80 for an hour and a half but it accounts for the fact that the tutor has to travel from London to Will’s home. Parents paying such sums should check that agencies and tutors are offering the same exam syllabus as the one their child is studying.

They should also be aware of cowboy operators in an unregulated industry.

Linda Papadopoulos, a psychologist and author, advises parents not to be fooled by presentation. “It’s easy to build a pretty website. Ask for references, speak to students or parents of students who have attended the course or worked with the tutor.” She also recommends finding out what proportion of students who attended previous courses have improved their grades, and how many students have gone on to study at their chosen university.

The weeks leading up to an exam can be stressful and Papadopoulos feels parents need to be supportive. “You can’t study for them. Parents want the best for their kids but sometimes in their attempts to help them they raise children’s anxiety. If you want to help your child, you need to manage your stress.”

She advocates having faith in a child’s assessment of how much study they need to do. “There’s no power without responsibility and a sense of responsibility gives you a sense of control, so I think you need to trust your children a bit. Trust them to know their own limits.”

However, if parents have genuine cause for concern, she suggests a visit to the school. “Sit down with the teacher and discuss what the demands are, what other people are doing and what the expectations are,” she says.

And don’t forget the treats. “Offer them rewards, such as a trip to a concert,” says Papadopoulos. “You can also make sure they are eating nutritious food — making their favourite meal after a long week of studying is fantastic.”

She also has pointers for teenagers: draw up a revision timetable; plan what chapters will be covered each week; ensure variety — if an hour is spent on maths, the second hour is spent on English rather than applied maths; start with those parts of the course you find really difficult; work through past papers. She also thinks it is crucial to take nights off: “Being able to have a little break from that structure is very important.”

Finally, she advises students to remember that disappointing exam results are not the end of the world. The worst-case scenario might lead to a retake.

“You need to embrace failure as part of success,” she says. “Abraham Lincoln lost many elections before going on to be the best president ever.”