Home Education

A Levels (Part II) – Traumas with Mercers College

When she finished the last instalment of her GCSE exams in June 2007, Xoë was almost in tears. She couldn’t wait for us to sort out the materials for the next lap of her education – her A levels.

Xoë’s chosen subjects are English Literature, Spanish, History, Classical Civilisation, and Latin; but before she could sit an A level in Latin she needed a GCSE in that same subject, and she also needed to get a Maths GCSE. Without a maths qualification one’s chances of getting into university are slim.

Caesar, meanwhile, was nowhere near so enthralled as his little sister with his GCSE studies – he can think of many things he would rather be doing than perusing a text book – but nevertheless he still aspires to a Higher Education. Unlike Xoë he has very little interest in literature and none whatsoever in the past; the poetry of Shakespeare does not move him, and he agrees with the man who said that history is bunk. Like his father, Caesar is scientifically minded. He decided that he wanted to take A levels in Maths, Further Maths, and Physics. Since he is fluent in Spanish it would be silly to abandon that subject, and he chose to make that his fourth A level. While he was about it, he decided, he would also study for GCSEs in Latin and French.

Caesar is now 17 and so, in order to keep up with his peer group, he needs to sit his A levels in the summer of 2009. Xoë may be almost two years younger than her brother but she does not believe in being left behind, and so she chose to work to the same deadline.
As anybody who has trodden this road will know, fitting five or even four A levels into the space of 18 months is a huge undertaking – but the kids reckoned they were up to it, and we decided that it was not for us to pre-judge their abilities or set limits. The fundamental principle of home-schooling is to let the child choose both his subjects and the pace at which he works. If Caesar and Xoë wanted to set the metronome to allegro, that was their responsibility. Our task, as parents, was to provide support, and that support began with a search for the necessary means. Before the children could begin their studies we had to find out about exams and exam boards and discover a set of teachers who could fulfil their needs.

Finding a path through the jungle of exam boards and exam syllabuses is a nightmare, as I have said previously, but it proved to be simple compared with the difficulty of finding tutors to match our progeny’s somewhat esoteric choice of subjects. No doubt all of their chosen subjects are readily available in the best schools, but the distance learning colleges tend to offer tuition in only the more popular arenas. At first it seemed that nobody taught either Latin or Spanish at A level, and nor could we find anyone offering Further Maths. Various people directed us towards the Further Maths Network – an organisation whose avowed purpose is teaching Further Maths to school children – but, incredible as it may seem, even they were unable to help.

And then we happened to hit upon Mercer’s College.

At first we were very wary of Mercer’s. They have no internet presence, and nobody at any of the home schooling organisations seemed to have heard of them. Did they even exist, we wondered? Perhaps they would just take our money and run.
However, we quickly discovered that the college is accredited by the Association of British Correspondence Colleges (abcc), and when we telephoned this organisation we were given a glowing report by someone who seemed to be personally acquainted with John Mercer.

Members of the abcc pledge themselves to fulfil a number of criteria including the provision of an “efficient tutorial service.” They undertake “to maintain adequate and appropriately qualified tutorial and administrative staff” and to provide, “without undue delay, adequate and reasonably up to date tutorial literature and instruction.” They will “do everything reasonably possible to enable their students to derive full benefit [from their courses]” and they are required to “maintain the highest ethical standards… by making no statement [either in their literature, or] by correspondence, or orally that is knowingly untrue or wilfully misleading.”

Despite the reassurance given by the abcc we were still a bit nervous about throwing all our eggs into one basket, and at first we still considered using the good old NEC for some of Xoë’s exams. The NEC do provide A level tuition in English, Classics, and History – but the NEC only offer fixed courses. In effect, they have already decided what is best, or easiest for the student.
Take, for example, English Literature. For this A level the candidate is required to study Shakespeare, poetry, and modern literature, and each examination board offers two or three different alternatives for each area. Teachers at the various schools and colleges select which particular alternative their students will follow – and so it was that the NEC had already chosen which options Xoë must follow if she studied the course through their auspices. Unfortunately, she did not particularly admire their choice. When John Mercer announced that he was willing to accommodate himself to whatever her little heart desired, her eyes lit up.

“Shakespeare is hard work,” said Mercer. “I suggest you opt for one of the comedies.”
“I like the comedies,” said Madam, “but I prefer the tragedies and the historic plays. I want to study Richard III.”
She also made her own choice of poetry, electing to study Wordsworth and Coleridge, and Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, and she chose her own modern writers, picking on One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

History is another exam which can be tackled from many angles – and this time it was Your Correspondent who turned up her nose at the NEC syllabus. NEC students study politics in England, France, Germany, and Russia during the Victorian era.
“Yuck!” said I. The very thought of it all made me shudder. “Why don’t they teach you the interesting stuff? Why don’t they teach you about the Wars of the Roses and the Tudors?”
“We do,” said Mr Mercer, whose attitude to modern history seemed to match mine. It transpired that he is the Mercer’s College history tutor, so that his opinion carried some weight.
Xoë finds the history of every era fascinating, but she went along with our choice.
“It will tie in nicely with your English course,” said Mercer. “Just don’t get the real Richard confused with that fellow in the play.”

Latin and Classics also got John Mercer’s approval: “They overlap, so that saves a lot of work.”
So too did Caesar’s choice of Physics, Maths, Further Maths, and Spanish. “But tell him to forget about the French GCSE,” said J.M. “He doesn’t need that.”
Caesar would not be told – and nor did his parent s believe that he should be made to drop this subject. Caesar seems to be very good at languages, Nick and I speak averagely reasonable French, and we are frequently in the company of French speaking people. All in all, it seemed a sensible choice – if only there were time to fit it in.

By this time it seemed that we may as well use Mercer’s College for all of the children’s exam requirements.
Mercer had announced that his college was able to teach all eight subjects and would provide lesson materials, text books and tuition suitable for the exam board of our choice.
He was willing and eager to accommodate Xoë’s whims.
He was approved by the Association of British Correspondence Colleges.
He had declared that he was prepared to conduct all business by e-mail.
This last item was extremely important to us. We have seen far too many families sitting waiting for schoolwork when they want, or need, to be moving on. So far as we are concerned, the internet is a godsend, from the point of view of the traveller living at no fixed abode, and we make full use of it to conduct our business and keep in touch with our friends.

By now the summer had flown by. It was mid-October, and we were worried about the time scale. When we asked John Mercer how long it would take to get things organised he said, “Oh, about ten minutes.”
Everything was sitting there, ready to be sent off – or so it seemed.
We were still humming and haa-ing when, without our prompting, Mr Mercer offered us a discount. His usual price is on a par with the National Extension College (NEC) cost, of £300 for one A level. According to his schedule of charges, two A levels would cost £576 and each additional subject would cost £255. Given that we were seeking to buy nine A level courses plus four GCSE courses, Mercer offered to provide the Further Maths and Classics courses without charge and to provide both Spanish courses for the price of one.
Gran-ma and Gran-pa agreed to foot the bill – and so we gave J.M. a cheque for half the amount and told him to start the ball rolling.

Ten minutes passed. Ten days passed. Weeks passed before, finally, in the second week of December, two large boxes of school books arrived at the port. The children were at one and the same time, excited and disappointed. Xoë was thrilled to receive a pile of text books, but Caesar noted that the Maths course supplied was not the one which we needed and had requested, and we were all rather upset to see how little tutorial material had been supplied.
John Mercer had once told us, “The difference between us and the NEC is that they are essentially a publishing operation, and we are essentially a teaching operation.”
This snide remark had made us chuckle – but now we began to worry. The NEC provide both tuition and study materials; each GCSE course purchased from the NEC had included a fat file stuffed full of lesson material. Mercer’s lessons consisted of slim black folders – and there were pitifully few of them. Indeed, there was only one Classics lesson supplied.
“Where are the others?” we asked. How can the student know how to apportion his time if he does not know the extent of his undertaking? “We’d like you to send us all of the lesson modules for all of the course,” we said.
“No problem,” said the man. But nothing happened. No more lesson modules ever arrived.

Lessons began at once, on the very day that the school books arrived, and within a few days the children were tucking into advanced Spanish grammar and amo, amas, amat. Spanish and Latin were both subjects that they could study together, because both had chosen to sit the Latin GCSE and the Spanish A level.
As I have said, Caesar likes Maths and Physics, and he now found that he also liked Latin – but he also enjoys sailing and diving and socialising, and best of all he likes building websites and messing about on the internet. Xoë, on the other hand likes absolutely nothing better than studying. When he heard that his new students had never studied Latin at all but were to sit a GCSE in six months time the Mercer’s College Latin tutor expressed serious doubts – and so far as Caesar was concerned he was right; it soon became clear that Our Boy had bitten off more than he could chew. But Madam X went roaring ahead, lapping up the declensions and swallowing down chunks of the Aeneid.

Xoë is a marvel. She has always been incredibly strong willed and determined, never taking no for an answer. Now she has gathered up these weapons and is putting them to use in a powerful, positive, organised way. She rises at five every morning and works solidly through until she decides that it is time for bed. All intrusions, such as requests to assist with the chores, are bitterly resented, and only occasionally does the student allow herself to be seduced by her younger sister into going for a swim. Indeed, even in the hottest months of the summer swimming was permitted only when it was perceived as a refreshment enabling further, more intensive study.

While Xoë thrived, Caesar was struggling. As I have said, his problem was due partly to his penchant for pressing the button which admits the user into the cyber world. I am sure we all know how much time one can waste surfing the net. Caesar also managed to make time to gain his Advanced Open Water Diver certificate, and whilst this qualification is a valuable one which will no doubt come in useful in years to come, it, too, took up precious time. All this having been said, the greatest problem which Caesar had to deal with was his tutor. Whereas Xoë’s Latin tutor is a wonderful man, with a passion for his subject, the woman appointed to teach Caesar his Maths and Physics was completely incompetent and thoroughly negative in her dealings with him. Her criticisms of his work were unintelligible – and some of them seemed to be incorrect – and she devoted most of her energy to telling him that he ought to go to school! She pooh-poohed the idea of his being able to take four A levels – and this without any knowledge whatsoever of his abilities – and despite the fact she had agreed to do so, she was unable to mark work by e-mail.
Ironically, according to Mercer the woman was also an IT tutor!
“I pity her poor IT students,” said Caesar, as he typed out careful instructions on how to insert annotations into a Word document, but it was himself he pitied most. This incompetent person was supposed to be teaching him Maths, Further Maths, and Physics!

Within one month we had seen more than enough. Caesar had spent days at a time poring over his books but had been able to achieve more or less nothing. Throughout this period we had been in regular contact with Mr M, but instead of offering to replace the tutor he had merely waffled. (As a point of interest, when we complained to the NEC about one of the children’s GCSE tutors he was replaced immediately; within 24 hours we had a new man.)
So far as we could gather, the head of the college was afraid of his employee, whom he referred to as a dragon. He also told us that he did not want to ask anyone else to teach Caesar via e-mail because then they might ask him to supply a computer…!
When we reminded him that he had promised us that his tutors would communicate via e-mail, John Mercer merely hedged and said that e-mail communication was “unreliable”.
With his student’s whole future in jeopardy, the man refused to budge; he refused to fulfil his moral and financial obligation and find, for Caesar, an effective, competent tutor.

Meanwhile, Xoë was galloping through the Latin course, making occasional forays into English Literature and History, and spending every morning of every day grappling with GCSE Maths. As the only person who had ever previously tried to instil into her any mathematical principles, I was extremely worried about this aspect of Xoë’s curriculum – but fortunately my concern only spurred the student to make a more determined effort.
Happily, too, Xoë had the benefit of three excellent tutors: the one supplied by Mercer’s, her father, and her brother. Indeed, Caesar spent many hours when he ought properly to have been attending to his own problems in explaining simpler matters to his little sister.

No student ever had a better chance – but Xoë had always detested maths. Would she be able to get to grips with the subject? Given the situation and the shortness of the time available, her tutors all recommended that she enter for the Intermediate GCSE exam, rather than the Advanced. This was the one which Caesar, in his turn, had been obliged to sit – and for the same reason: cramming the extra material into the time available would be very difficult.
For anyone who wants an A grade at GCSE, the Advanced tier is the only option – but Xoe did not need an A. She is a student of the arts, and as such she only needed a C. Regardless of this fact, she refused to accept the easy path and insisted on pursuing the highest goal.

Naturally, it did not take us long to realise that Xoë’s GCSE Maths tutor might make an excellent replacement for Caesar’s – and when we asked the gentleman he gladly obliged us by taking on the first stage of the A level syllabus. Unfortunately, he was, he said, not qualified to teach beyond Core 2.  A level Maths consists of 6 “cores”. Caesar was therefore still without a tutor for the greater part of the syllabus, and he was without anyone to teach him Further Maths or Physics – but at least he could begin to get underway.

In May of this past year (2008) the kids were back at Lavant House sitting their first batch of exams. In Caesar’s case this amounted to just one item: Core 1 of the A level Maths syllabus. In Xoë’s case there were a number of exams for the Latin and Maths GCSEs.
Such is her confidence that Xoë was able to ‘phone, immediately after the last Latin exam, and tell us that she must certainly have scored an A. “It was pathetically easy,” she said. “I’d finished long before the time was used up.”
But regarding the Maths she was less sure.

Once again, the kids have spent the summer studying hard. The windsurfer was only rigged once; the inflatable canoes never came out of their bags; the diving bottles got only one dunking. Caesar and Xoë also spent a little bit of time worrying – for as the weeks went by even the Ship’s Resident Scholar began to wonder whether she really had passed that Latin GCSE. Perhaps she had missed something….?

On August 21st, Lavant House school telephoned to deliver the results, and we all stood around the skipper with bated breath, listening to his “Great!”s and “Righty-ho”s, and trying to interpret their meaning.
As you will no doubt have guessed, Madam need not have worried: for her Latin GCSE she scored an A-star. Not bad when one considers that six months before sitting the exam she had never heard of Virgil, had no interest in the Romans, and didn’t know a dominus from a domus! A large slice of the credit for this phenomenal achievement must go to Brian “Brennus” Bishop, her indefatigable tutor. Brennus was as sceptical as any other outsider of Xoë’s ability to succeed in her ambition – but he nevertheless gave the project his full support, and went the extra mile, too, marking assignments in double quick time and keeping his student at her task. Brennus’ enthusiasm for his subject is so infectious that within a week of embarking on the course Xoë was wandering around reciting the Pater Noster, and by the end of the course she was giving us whole chunks from Cicero and raving about the poetry of the language.
In her former existence, a year or two ago, Xoë was determined to be an actress. Now, acting has been relegated to the rank of a hobby; she can now think of no finer way to spend her life than in the study of classical literature.
“When I have done my A levels, I shall learn Ancient Greek.”
Believe me, if the ambition remains with her then she will, indeed, achieve this aim.

Brennus is also the children’s tutor for Spanish, and if Caesar ever gets going he will be learning French from this same man. Roxanne has been so affected by Xoë’s success that she too is now embarking on Latin lessons – under Brennus’ care. If anybody out there wants to study any of these three languages, this is your man. To contact him, drop us a line using the contact form.

There is nothing to beat a first class tutor – and this fact is borne out not only by the story of Xoë’s Latin lessons but by the children’s maths results. When she began the GCSE course back in December Xoë was scarcely able to cope with long division, but with the aid of three very good teachers, and by a sheer effort of will power and rigid self-discipline, she scored a B in the exam.
“Only a B,” she sniffed, disdainfully. Tut-tut; it spoils that pretty row of perfect As.

Meanwhile, Caesar, lacking both a competent tutor (at least for the first few months), and having been supplied with the wrong books, and being possessed of only the average helping of self -discipline nevertheless managed to score a C in the first stage of his Maths A level. This is a pass and is perfectly acceptable – but not to one whose sister is threatening to eclipse the sun.
“I’ll take it again in January,” he said with a sigh.

With these exams behind them, the kids have knuckled down to further study – or, at any rate, they have tried to.
Xoë’s first problem was with her History. Mercer himself is the tutor here – he has no one to nag into action – and yet he has been very tardy in marking his student’s work. One assignment, sent to him in February, was not returned until June!
John Mercer has had a tough year personally – but, when all is said and done, a person’s private life must not ever be allowed to impinge upon his business. Especially, it must not be allowed to jeopardise the future of the children whose education he has guaranteed to further.
In the past few weeks Mercer has been returning work much more speedily, and he occasionally even complies with our requirement and sends his comments by e-mail. Generally, however, he prefers to send a weighty tome, hand-written on heavy weight paper and filled with delightfully acidic comments. The man certainly knows his stuff – but he could hardly be said to have fulfilled his obligations or kept to the letter of the law as set out by the abcc.

In the middle of August, seven months after embarking on the Mercer’s College Maths course, Caesar was finally appointed a tutor who is able to teach him Maths, Further Maths, and Physics. Whether this man will provide an “efficient tutorial service” remains to be seen. Certainly, he seems pleasant enough, and his comments are intelligent and intelligible – so that we hope our troubles in this department are now resolved.

Xoë’s English course has meanwhile ground to a halt. This time the blame lies not with the tutor but with the college, who have failed to supply the required lessons. Xoë is even more addicted to English Literature than she is to Latin – but how can she proceed when she does not know what she is supposed to be studying?

As for the Classics course, this has failed to materialise. Needless to say, we have been hassling John Mercer regularly ever since the project was begun, last December. When last we spoke to him on the ‘phone he said, “Classics doesn’t matter”…! He also admitted that the course did not exist – in which case, how did he dare to pretend to us that he was able to teach it?

Can Mercer’s College be said to have provided, “without undue delay, adequate and reasonably up to date tutorial literature and instruction…”?
Has John Mercer done “everything reasonably possible to enable his students to derive full benefit [from their courses]”?
Has he maintained “the highest ethical standards”? Of course he has not. He has made numerous statements, both “by correspondence [and] orally, that are knowingly untrue [and] wilfully misleading.”
When we pointed this out to the abcc, he made another such statement. He told that organisation that he was very happy with Xoë’s progress in her Classics course! In nine and a half months Xoë has done only one Classics lesson – the one, sole lesson which was provided. How could any honest man claim that this is satisfactory progress?
In short, Mr John Mercer has spun us a pack of lies, and far from doing everything reasonably possible to benefit his students he has obstructed their progress and is jeopardising their futures. In our opinion, this man should not be allowed to remain in business – he should not be allowed to take other parents and other children for a ride – but saying so does not help us.

Where do we go from here?
We are not at all sure.

Watch this space.

8 Comments

  1. Hi Guys,

    Wow!

    Not sure what to say apart from the amazing crew of the mollymawk are studying stuff that I never had a chance to even look at. Maybe I would have failed, maybe not, who knows?

    I live my life now worried that I don’t have a certificate for this or an exam result for that in a world of paper. But, surely this situation you and I are in is a product of a world that thinks a piece of paper is more important than a lifetime of experience or proven practical ability.

    Lots of love from Grazalema

    1. Jill  (article author) 

      You’re right in a way, Clive.
      Nick is a mechanic – but he has never done any formal training, and he doesn’t have any bits of paper to prove that he is a mechanic. As he always says, when people ask him for proof of his competence, “If I can fix your engine then I’m a mechanic.” (And when they talk to him like that he also doubles their bill. 🙂 )

      We never intended that the kids should get themselves (and us) so bogged down with qualifications. It seemed to us that, having been home-schooled, they needed to do some small thing to prove their competence – both to the world and to themselves (which is far more important, of course) – and so we encouraged them to take 5 GCSEs each. Without that “proof” we would have continued to suffer from the accusation that we had failed to give our children the advantage of a proper schooling.
      Well, we / the kids scotched that idea – but from there things have snow-balled.

      Xoë has set her heart on academia, and on a place at university; she just LOVES studying. One might almost say that she lives to study.
      Caesar is less enthusiastic about the exam thing, and his favourite pastime is tweaking this website… but he is also enjoying his studies.
      The kids have never been taught to view academic success as a goal – on the contrary – and they were under no compulsion from us or from anybody else to take on this burden. It was their choice. It is hard work, for all of us, but in a few months time it will all be over… until Rox decides to tread the same road…

      Jill

    2. Jill  (article author) 

      Hey, Clive, I should also have mentioned the fact that you CAN still prove, or improve your mental muscle, should you really want to do so.
      The courses provided by the NEC are not specifically directed at kids. Indeed, I think I am right in saying that most of the students using this, and other Distance Learning Colleges are adults.

      Updating the previous report:
      It became obvious that Mercers were never going to come up with the promised, long-awaited Classics course, for Xoë, and so we have invested in an NEC Classics course. Madam X says that it is “brilliant”.

      Meanwhile, Caesar’s new maths and physics teacher is proving excellent too – so now all the lad has to do is knuckle down…

      Jill

  2. David and Sandy

    Hi Guys, dropped into your website to see how life is going for you. What a situation with Mercer, eh? Is he still in business or have they put his head on a pike on London Bridge? We are in Torrevieja on our way back to Almerimar having spent the winter in Rome and the summer along the Riviera. We are heading into your Mar Menor today, for me to dive with the hookah and do the anodes, and clean and check. Don’t fancy diving in Almerimar :0 We got your books, thank you. Sandy has read them both and thoroughly enjoyed them but (as is usual for me) I haven’t got round to reading them yet. Will do soon. All the best to you all and hoping that your colander WiFi is still working well, David and Sandy

  3. Hi,

    Glad I found your site was just about to enrol my son in I GCSE’s with John Mercer. Where is the best place to go for Distance learning and have you found an exam centre.

    Steph

    1. Caesar  (Mollymawk crew) 

      Hi Steph,

      As you see from the article, we certainly wouldn’t recommend John Mercer. The only other distance learning organisation we’ve used is the NEC (http://www.nec.ac.uk/). The NEC provide very good service and I can highly recommend them for GCSEs. When it comes to A Levels they have quite a narrow selection, but they are fine for GCSEs.

      In terms of exam centres – they aren’t easy to find, but there are schools which will take private candidates. You just need to get in touch with a load of schools in your area and ask if they can take private candidates for the specific GCSEs and exam boards your son will be using. Sorry I can’t be more helpful!

  4. I find this a bit odd. I successfully completed GCSE Latin with Mercer’s college several years ago; never interacted with John Mercer as far as I recall, but I received all the course materials at the beginning, including several books and I think some audio tapes too. I had friends who were completing GCSE Latin as an actual daytime school course at the time, and my experience was similar to theirs, apart from the obvious disadvantage of never actually seeing my tutor in person. However, my tutor knew the Latin teacher at the school from Classics events they had attended together, and seemed to be well-informed about the Classics and Latin communities. There was no spoon-feeding at all, because that offers a much greater learning experience – I see this in my own undergraduate students now.

    Proof is in the pudding (though just an n of 2: my brother and me): our GCSE results were higher than several of the students in the school.

    1. Hullo NC,

      Sorry for the delay in responding.
      This is now water under the bridge – the article is almost seven years old – and it’s not very releavant to anything. I’m not even sure if Mercer’s College is still in business.
      Just in case he is – I can confirm that the Latin tutor is a wonderful man and, as you say yourself, the proof is in the pudding: Xoe had never studied a word of Latin before she embarked on the project, but with the aid of Brennus’ tuition she scored an A grade A level.

      As for the rest – it stands. John Mercer promised to provide tuition and materials, and he failed to do so. The kids went into their exams without having had the chance to complete their studies, and this showed in the results. It may be that the man had some personal issues which caused him to let us down, but the fact is that his failure has had a lasting effect on the children’s lives.

      Still, as I say, it’s all water under the bridge.

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