Sixth form is a time of change, and choosing the right school or college is crucial at this key juncture. The region’s top educators are here to help
For pupils currently in year 11, those looming GCSEs may seem like all that matters just now. But while they race to complete the syllabus, followed by hours of revision, practice papers and sessions on exam technique, they’re also preparing for the next stage in their educational lives as they decide where they want to spend their sixth form years.
By the time they complete their exams next summer, formal education will have dominated their lives for over a decade. Since the age of four, with few exceptions, they’ve followed a path others have laid out for them.
Now, for the first time, they have a choice about what happens next. The decisions they make are likely to have an influence not just on what happens after they leave school, but potentially their whole lives. No pressure, then!
Fortunately, schools in our area have seen it all many, many times before and are ready to help with advice about every aspect of sixth form life, from how to pick the right subjects to deciding on where to study them.
It’s also vital to work out what’s right for you rather than being unduly influenced by others, according to Abbey Jones, senior deputy head 11 to 18 years at Stephen Perse Cambridge. “The key point is that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, it is down to the individual,” she states. “Choosing to go where friends are going or perhaps where family members have been won’t necessarily be the correct choice for you.”
For many pupils, one of the key questions is whether to stay with the school that has known you since year 7 or opt for somewhere new. How do you decide whether staying, or going, is better?
“If you are considering moving from your current school, ask yourself: ‘What are my motives?’” according to Elizabeth Bennell, head of sixth form at King’s Ely. “If you have done well and been happy until now, think about whether it is worth rocking the boat. Equally, if you really feel your current school has not been a good fit, try and unpick exactly why and use that to inform your choice.”
Abbey Jones at Stephen Perse recommends that prospective students visit schools and colleges – ideally several times. “It comes down to the feel at the end of the day, and the way to get that feel has to be to visit, if possible on a couple of different occasions. Perhaps, yes, a set piece open event, but if you can get round for a tour on a normal day that’s helpful in giving you a flavour of the real school.”
Even when pupils are 100% convinced about where they want to go after GCSEs, visiting at least one other establishment is essential, says Robin Griffiths, head of sixth form at St Mary’s School, Cambridge. “Do make certain that you compare it to something else and go and have a look at what’s on offer, just so you can say: ‘I made a positive choice.’”
It’s going to be a personal decision, stresses Rachel Biltcliffe, head of sixth form at Parkside Community College. The most important aspect to consider, she tells us, is “what students enjoy studying and where they might feel most comfortable.”
Think about the sort of sixth form experience you want, confirms Elizabeth Bennell at King’s Ely. “Are you looking for more of a fluid day where you just pop in and out for lessons, or are you more likely to flourish within the structure and community that comes from more of a school environment?”
There are practical questions such as the size of classes or accessibility of teachers – for example, how long they take to respond to emails and what type of support is available for when difficulties arise. “If I am three grades from where I need to be, what will you tell me to help me improve?” says Robin Griffiths at St Mary’s. He also advises finding out how schools help pupils to grow as individuals. “What else will I get the opportunity to explore, how else will I develop, what skills will I build and how will I be encouraged to go beyond narrow book learning into developing as an individual?” he asserts.
When it comes to the academic aspect, it’s not just about how the school delivers course content, but helping pupils understand what to do with it, says Charis Hunn-Smith, senior deputy head at Stoke College. “Pupils should be looking for a school where teachers will teach you how to tackle exams, organise your knowledge, revise and structure your answers.”
Take the curriculum, for instance – where tough choices may be involved – and the decision-making process can feel overwhelming. Educators’ advice is to follow your passion by all means, but back it up with solid research.
While most of our area’s schools and colleges offer A-levels, there’s also the option of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme. A-levels could work well for students who know exactly which subjects they want to study in depth. The IB diploma, on the other hand, helps students who have relished a whole range of subjects and want to keep that breadth going into sixth form.
At Parkside Community College, a state-run college that’s small, caring and rated ‘outstanding’ by the school inspectors, students work towards the IB diploma rather than taking A-levels, explains Rachel Biltcliffe. “We offer a broad, balanced and supportive approach to learning,” she says. “Our students study the IB diploma, meaning they continue with English, a language, humanity, maths and science until the end of year 13 which means they are studying all of these core subjects at Level 3.”
Charis Hunn-Smith at Stoke College advises students who are able to take maths and science A-levels to study these if possible. “If you have the capability to do it, that’s a massive door kept open by choosing one of those subjects.” Budding lawyers, on the other hand, would be well advised to swerve law as an A-level. “Our advice is to stick with more traditional subjects as you keep more doors open.”
While pupils are rightly thinking about the importance of becoming more independent as preparation for university, it’s important to do this in a way that works for them. Stoke College, for example, remains ‘all about knowing our students really well, pre-empting when things are starting to go wrong, picking up on concerns before students even know they are there,” insists Charis Hunn-Smith.
The school sees the return of some students who move to a larger setting for sixth form, only to decide it’s not for them. “I think it’s a jump too soon when they’re not quite ready,” Charis continues. “They think that, when they go to university, [the change] will be massive. But instead of saying, ‘How can I learn the skills I need to be able to cope?’ they sometimes feel it is better to jump now and see if I can do it.”
So while pupils are focused on the future, looking back is also worthwhile for understanding what has worked up until now – and what is worth carrying forward into sixth form. If a high level of pastoral support has been important, looking for somewhere that will continue this could well be high up on the list of must-haves, explains Abbey Jones at Stephen Perse Cambridge. “It’s about looking at how school has been for you, what you’ve enjoyed about it, what you’ve made the most of, what’s worked really well for you – and then not allowing those things to fall by the wayside.”
As she points out, methods which have previously worked for a pupil in year 11 should still work for them in sixth form. “Thinking about what’s important now will lead to a similar set of criteria which will still be important in a few months’ time.” It’s all about making sure that pupils are setting themselves up for a successful and enjoyable two years of sixth form by putting in place every element of school life that’s still available.
Academic studies will inevitably occupy a big part of students’ time in sixth form, but it’s important, explains Robin Griffiths at St Mary’s, to look at the broader picture. “It’s easy to get hung up on grades and grade outcomes alone, but that is a really one-dimensional view of education. You certainly need to get the best grades you possibly can to go where you want to go, but that’s only one part of the equation.”
The approach of St Mary’s is to focus not just on outcomes, but also support and leadership opportunities, helping pupils to develop as individuals, whether through the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme or involvement in charity fundraising and student leadership.
Pupils in our area’s schools who want to be ultra busy won’t have a shortage of ways to fill their days. But schools stress that during these two years, they have far more choice over how much they want to do. Although opting out altogether is rarely an option – and it turns out there’s a good reason for that.
“Maintaining a balance between your studies and other interests is incredibly important for your health and wellbeing,” says Elizabeth Bennell at King’s Ely. “The students who excel – both at school and beyond – are not necessarily the ones who have thrown everything into their academic studies alone, but have learnt to manage their time well and develop life skills outside the classroom.”
“Busy people do better generally,” concurs Charis Hunn-Smith at Stoke College, where students are encouraged to take part in sport and drama, primarily “for well-roundedness, mental health and your own balance.” The school’s sixth form diploma helps prepare pupils for life after school – whether that involves university or an increasingly popular degree apprenticeship – and covers everything from cooking on a budget to global politics and current affairs, helping to bridge the gap between a more sheltered school environment and the wider world.
At King’s Ely, the sixth form leadership diploma enables students to build on their strengths and identify areas for development – valuable preparation for university and job interviews as well as a way of celebrating achievements. This is combined with well-planned programmes spanning everything from CV building to inspiring talks (topics include the nature of democracy and quantum physics).
Sixth formers at Stephen Perse Cambridge, meanwhile, may take an additional language qualification (like German and Mandarin) or join Cambridge Model United Nations (CamMUN). There’s also one of six student-led committees, which include mentoring and wellbeing, and opportunities for either high-level team sports or individual activities, from gardening to paddle boarding.
With so many options, what’s clear is that, regardless of where students end up at the end of their time in sixth form, our area’s schools will do their best to ensure they are equipped with the qualifications, skills and confidence to achieve happiness and success in the next stage of their lives – whatever that may be.