Specialist maths summer school class

Summer school at Melbourne University. Photo: Penny Stephens

It's nudging 33 degrees outside and an afternoon heat haze is forming on the horizon of the city.

High school students everywhere are frolicking in the surf - or lazing indoors with an Xbox for company - enjoying a well-earned holiday.

Or maybe they are up on level 14 of this building on Flinders Street, one of 20 students sitting in a frigid and fluorescent-lit room, grappling with ''linear dependence of vectors'' and other incomprehensible mathematical concepts.

Wen Li teaching Specialist Maths in the TSSM 2 Day Head Start Summer School program for VCE students in Flinders St, Melbourne.

Teacher Wen Li takes specialist maths at the TSSM tutoring school in Flinders Street. Photo: Penny Stephens

This is what summer school looks like. Once viewed as a remedial learning opportunity for strugglers, summer school is now seen as a chance to gain a competitive edge on your peers, with brochures touting week-long workshops as ''the essential head start''.

Here at the offices of ''TSSM'' - one of many local classroom-based tutoring schools - managing director Hanna Farah has seen January enrolments jump from 25 students 10 years ago to almost 1000 today, served by nearly 100 teachers.

''The kids normally walk out of here feeling eight weeks ahead of everyone in their class,'' Mr Farah said. ''You don't have to learn every sentence of the textbook, but you do have to know what to learn. We show them what they should emphasise.''

Today the topic is specialist maths, and among those listening to the teacher, Wen Li, is Jacob Matthews, principal of Lighthouse Christian College, Cranbourne.

Mr Matthews decided to pay to send his entire 2014 year 12 class of 23 students here, at $149 a subject per student.

''I think sometimes just the regular classroom lessons are not sufficient for really getting the concepts,'' he said.

''Some students tend to lose focus. I think this gives them an outline of what is expected.''

Drew Donnan, 18, of Koo Wee Rup Secondary College, has been staying in an apartment in Melbourne to attend the school, rather than commute to the workshops each day from his home at Maryknoll, Gippsland.

''I want to study commerce, and I thought this would give me a better understanding of the subjects,'' he said.

''Mum just told me I was doing it, and there's a fair bit in there to learn.''

The phenomenon is no rarity. At Melbourne University, another busy company - the School For Excellence - is running a two-day year 12 English program for about 380 students.

Irena Jaskula founded the company 21 years ago, employing VCE teachers, most of whom have VCAA marking experience.

In the past seven years she has seen total summer school enrolments double to more than 1000 as competition increases.

''Students are also realising that the marks are not going to come by themselves and that they need to put the effort in from the beginning of the year,'' she said. ''The culture is changing.''

These youngsters are not playing catch-up. The classes at both these companies, and at suburban equivalents such as Breakthrough Education, Glen Waverley, are populated by students who want to jump from ''A'' to ''A+''.

''The majority of students who do summer school want to go from a 45 to a 50,'' Mr Farah said. ''They're very motivated kids. You get to know their faces. They're a committed bunch.''

konrad.marshall@fairfaxmedia.com.au