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The revision thing

Renewing your knowlege at the last minute is a skill for life, says Ross Clark

25 March 2011

3:16 PM

25 March 2011

3:16 PM

 The first time I heard of a crammer school I assumed it was a 16th-century foundation by Thomas Cranmer, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, where boys walked about the cloisters in long cloaks with copies of the Book of Common Prayer stuffed under their arms.

I guess we didn’t take revision quite so seriously in my day. In fact I know we didn’t. Revision was something you did in the week before your exams, and if you had to do it in public you tended to hide your book of calculus inside a copy of Smash Hits.

It was brought home to me just how much things have changed since the 1980s when I started discussing Easter holiday plans with the family, and noticed my son was shaking his head. There was no way he was going on holiday at Easter. He had to spend the time revising. What, not even ski in the mornings and turn to your books in the afternoons? No. Holidays are for the summer, I was told, they are not for indulging in when GCSEs are on the horizon. Whether you are studying mechanics of bodies or 17th-century religion and politics, it seems, the fashionable thing if you are 16 is to spend the entire spring break with your nose in your books, if not signing up for a dedicated revision course.

Colleges seem to be springing up all over the place. I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t a Thomas Cranmer Crammer School whose sole function is to bone up religious studies students on the Book of Common Prayer. I am not sure whether it is a good or a bad thing, the growing seriousness of revision. It is reassuring to see that pupils no longer regard studying as a shameful secret — and it does make you question the standard knee-jerk response to rising exam grades, that it must be because the exams are getting easier. But is it good that revision has become such an arms race, consuming pupils’ waking hours for weeks or even months before exams? I used to think that revising was a bit too much like cheating. Like Flanders & Swann on foreign sportsman who ‘practise beforehand and spoil all the fun’, I tended to avoid last-minute cramming on the grounds that there something a little demeaning about last-minute study: it was more stylish to breeze into the exam room past the sweating masses in the corridors still trying to master the periodic table with five minutes to go. But then maybe I was the sadder one: I had spent my whole year swotting while others had been performing epic battles on the football pitch or treading the boards in the school play.

The older I get, the more I have come to appreciate that last-minute cramming is a worthwhile skill in itself. Thespians must be particularly adept at it: challenge an actor about his schooldays and I bet you will find someone whose school education was concentrated into a few vital hours before the doors of the examination room opened. When David Cameron or William Hague get on planes to do a deal with the latest Arab dictator it is no use their relying on knowledge they acquired earlier in the year: they need to ingest a huge amount of up-to-date information fed to them by their officials.

Maybe that is why I am not running the country: put me on a plane to Cairo and I would just look out of the  window, thinking last week’s newspapers and my school history would see me through when I got into the negotiating chamber.

Either way, I suspect cramming is here to stay. The government is consulting on whether to replace May Day bank holiday with a bank holiday in October. But for GCSE and A-level candidates, a far bigger change has already occurred: the Easter holidays have been abolished altogether, replaced by a bit of frolicking in late June. If you don’t have your head in your transitional metals or first world war peace treaties on Easter Sunday, you are pretty well sunk.

Some leading Easter revision colleges

Email Avg. Class Size
Ashbourne College, London  020 7937 3858 7
Collingham College, London 020 7244 7414 5
Davies Laing and Dick, London 020 7935 8411 4
Duff Miller College, London 020 7225 0577 5
Harrogate Tutorial College, north Yorkshire 01423 501041 3

Most of the above colleges are members of the Council for Independent Education (, a national
organisation of independent colleges which specialise in preparing students for university entrance.

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