Tutorial College and Crammers

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Of the 653,000 higher education hopefuls in 2012, 465,000 ended up with places, leaving 188,000 behind. With another bumper crop of applicants this year (2013-2014), that figure could be about to rise, even though there are some 60,000 fewer 18 year olds now compared with four years ago.

Unlike politicians, few students who fail to make the cut first time round will relish the chance to spend more time with their families. Some accept their results, modify their expectations and see what they can get via clearing. Others head back to the classroom for retakes. First port of call for many is their old school. Some, if not exactly overjoyed to see their former pupils hanging around the place like the ghosts of exams past, are happy to let them have another go. Others treat their continued presence as a slight embarrassment. ‘I definitely felt they didn’t want me around,’ says one ex-sixth former, of her mid-league co-ed independent.

So it could be worth thinking twice before you sign up with the dear old alma mater and taking a look, instead, at the many establishments that deal exclusively in the business of grade improvement. They’re known familiarly as crammers, more formally as private sixth form or tutorial colleges, and flexibility is their raison d’être.

Some, like Bosworth Independent College, are stand-alone one- offs or part of a small, often family-owned group. Others, like the cosily-named Davies, Laing and Dick, are cogs in a much larger empire. Many incorporate the names of famous centres of learning in their titles though, judging by their actual distance from any spire, dreaming or otherwise, this can on occasion reflect aspirational rather than geographic proximity.

A fair few — but by no means all — are members of CIFE, a loose- knit group founded originally to ensure proper accreditation after the government of the day decided to pull out of the role. (All are now subject to regular inspections.) What they all share is an absence of charitable status (a shock to some parents confronted with the precious gift of VAT on their bill) and large fees, with £16,000 a typical starting point for full-time day pupils. Justification comes in the form of small overall numbers and class sizes, usually capped at eight (sometimes larger for sciences), the quality and experience of the tutors and their sang froid in delivering the goods where – in many cases – more conventional approaches have failed.

What makes the biggest difference, however, is the quality of the tutors. The best won’t necessarily have strings of qualifications after their names but will be experienced, dedicated and prepared to put in as much work as it takes to get their students on track.

‘When my son fell behind with his assignments, all his homework was supervised,’ says one parent, whose son attended a central London college. ‘Frankly, it was a relief. Because it’s small, you can’t get lost and they absolutely know who you are.’

Academic programmes tend to be more about depth than breadth. IBs and the pre-U are a rarity. While there are specialised English language university foundation courses aimed mainly at overseas students, together with specialist entrance exam preparation for medics and others, the world of the tutorial college revolves around A levels.

Despite the abolition of January AS and A2 retakes — from the 2013-2014 academic year, it’s summer exams or nothing — colleges are upbeat about the different ways their study packages can be served. Depending on how many grades they need to make up, candidates can either re-do the entire year, opt for a slightly pacier five or six month course starting in January or February or go for broke with an Easter to summer sprint. (CIFE publishes a handy list of FAQs). And, as previously, students can select the units they wish to redo. With careful packing, they can fit in a spot of gap-year gorgeousness, too – though a certain mental toughness is required to follow back- packing adventures with a return to school.

A hard core will spend at least a year there. The super bright can complete A levels (GCSEs too, in many places) in as little as a year, with 18 month and two year courses also on the menu. They can also be good places for those who’ve had a disastrous first year in the sixth form because, as one website puts it, they’re ‘immature, distracted, frustrated, heartbroken, or unwell’ and want either to start again or switch courses half way through — a breeze following the introduction of a simplified transfer process between exam boards.

There’s freedom from much of the enforced esprit de corps that comes with membership of a traditional school community. For the disenchanted, this can come as something of a relief.

But while uniform and pettifogging school rules are out, teaching to the test is quite definitely in. Students can expect frequent meetings with tutors to focus the mind. There’s an emphasis on learning skills and revision as you go, with extensive reference to past papers and regular tests — often weekly — to weed out the potential for making silly mistakes. And there’s no slacking outside lessons either. One tutorial college expects three to four hours’ preparation for every one- to-one hour-long session.

Extracurricular options? While their absence has been a fairly regular gripe (past inspection reports are useful here) things have improved. If a college caters for those young enough (pre-GCSE) to be following the national curriculum, a range of activities must, legally, be provided. Elsewhere, there’s considerable variation. As a minimum, many colleges forge links with nearby universities or private fitness centres so students can use their sports and fitness facilities. Others run D of E programmes (Lansdowne College) or organise an annual revue (Ashbourne Independent School).

So which crammer should you choose? Marketed to very different customers, some almost entirely filled with overseas students, others patronised largely by locals, compare and contrast exercises can be tricky.

What you should check:


Expertise in dealing with pupils like to your child.

However impressive the overall A level pass rate, it’s essential to ask the college for more detail. A retake student is likely to have very specific needs (a grade or two up in specific modules, an overall climb from a C to an A grade). Be equally specific in your questions. How have similar candidates peformed? What supporting data do they have? Ideally, this should be based on several years’ results, especially important as with often small numbers of students in each year group, just one exceptional or disastrous result can significantly skew the percentages.


The minimax effect – the least that can be done for the best results

‘We do a lot of number crunching,’ says one college. They should be able to advise on the smallest effort required to deliver the best possible grade increase and which units, AS and A2, to focus on.


Who will be teaching me?

Some colleges recruit tutors on a just-in-time basis. ‘I was told they didn’t know who would be teaching my daughter as they hadn’t been recruited yet,’ says one mother. Check it out and ensure you meet them first. They may be fine teachers but you need to be confident that the chemistry’s there to begin with.


Expertise in dealing with university applications

Some highly competitive courses, such as medicine, expect candidates to be effortless high flyers. Most, including Russell Group, will consider second time round applicants, but it’s essential to find out what your chosen university’s policy is. Discuss your goals with the college and make sure their advice is based on oodles of past experience.


How they score when it comes to added value

The best colleges are very good indeed, not merely compared with their peers but with UK schools generally. Almost 95 per cent of A level grades from pupils at Cardiff Sixth Form College, for example, were at A*/A (it boasts a substantial overseas contingent). Abbey College, Cambridge and Brampton College Hendon (amongst others) regularly reach 80 per cent grade B and above. However, some are pretty picky when they select candidates. So ask how the different ability ranges perform. Are they all exceptional when they arrive? And how good is the college at helping middling students to punch above their academic weight? Ask for supporting data.


Whether they have a particularly subject specialisation

Some offer a full range of subjects but may lean towards the sciences. Check numbers of candidates sitting each subject so you can get a feel for the balance. Being one of a handful of humanities students in a college of would-be economists could be just your bag, but better to know in advance.


What the opportunities are to socialise

Limited socialising might seem like a good idea to parents of offspring whose year-round partying contributed to their academic downfall. But for the part-time resit student, coming into college for a few hours every week can be a lonely business, so ask how the timetable is organised and whether there are structured opportunities (and space) to meet others.


Whether there’s help with the fees

 It’s expensive. Bear in mind, however, that your money is likely to buy you a substantial amount of tiny group, and often one- to-one, tuition. In addition, many colleges provide help with finances for exceptional candidates who would struggle to meet the fees, so it’s always worth asking.


Crammers are not the only route

For those with minimal qualifications but a yearning to go on to higher education, Access courses can bridge the gap. Run by further education colleges round the country, with on-line versions also available (the Distance Learning Centre has a wide range – though attracts mixed reviews) they cover everything from law and politics to sciences and are highly regarded by universities.

One pupil, who missed most of his sixth form studies at his independent day school owing to illness, is now employed by the oil industry in the sort of lucrative post that the pushiest of parents would be hard pressed to sniff at, having completed a science-based Access course followed by a degree at a Russell Group university.

It’s no easy option, however. Courses take a minimum of a year to complete and are intended for those aged over 19 who have ‘substantial experience of life outside of formal education, gained since completing compulsory schooling,’ so it’s not an immediate post-school option.

A fair dose of self-motivation is also necessary – something you’ll be quizzed about when you apply. You may also be asked to sit ability tests in some areas.

Though you’ll have to pay tuition fees (FE colleges in Surrey were quoting upwards of £2,400 to complete a one-year course), help may be available depending on how long you were at school for and what qualifications you have already gained.

The Access to Higher Education website lists numerous Cinderella-style transformations. One full time mother became a midwife; a former waitress is now a criminal barrister. The consensus: if you’re determined and focused with plenty of evidence of real life experience gained in the school of hard knocks, Access courses are definitely worth a look.


See also

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