At Sixes and Sevens

Sixth Form creates an opportunity for teenagers to decide to stay at their existing school or move on to pastures new. Georgina Blaskey weighs up the pros and cons.

Should I stay or should I go? It’s a dilemma faced by many a teenager and their parents during their education journey. Deciding whether to stick with your current school or risk making a change can be a challenging decision. The pros and cons aren’t always clear – the fear of the unknown may put you off branching out, but staying put may lead to stagnation.

If your current school doesn’t offer the breadth of curriculum at A level, IB or BTEC – or indeed the new T level, that may be a deciding factor along with financial considerations (moving from private boarding to state college or vice versa) or relocation. If the required GCSE grades to stay at the school have not been reached, re-sits may be needed, possibly at a specialist sixth form college.

Remaining at your current school for sixth form may have many benefits including extensive subject choices, small seminar style teaching, increased responsibility within the school community and high-profile roles in sport, music and drama. Improved physical provision for the oldest pupils has been a strong focus in many senior schools, complementing students’ new-found status at the top of the school.

Investment in state-of-the-art sixth form centres at many London day schools has transformed the traditional, nondescript common room at the end of the corridor into a dedicated space with technological facilities and breakout areas many top companies would envy. Suzie Longstaff, Head at Putney High School, explains: “Our new sixth form centre has purpose built classrooms, a lounge, café, diner, and a career centre. It mimics university life, helping them on their way when they’re not there yet.”

A similar approach is taken at Ardingly College, a co-ed boarding and day school in Sussex. Deputy Head, James Johnson says, “In their final year at the school, all pupils – day, boarding, boys and girls – move into Godwin Hall, a state-of-theart house, designed to resemble a university hall of residence and prepare the pupils more effectively for university life.”.

At Woldingham, the lower sixth and upper sixth have their own boarding houses where they can cook for each other, with day girls and boarders all mixed in and reaping the benefits. “They have a choice between working in the main school or in their house,” explains Josephine Lane, Head of Sixth Form. “It’s a fundamental change. We talk to the Year 11s about the differences but when they start they always say, ‘Wow it really feels so different’.”

Rowena Cole, Head of St John’s School, Leatherhead, reminds us why the last two years of school are so special: “Sixth Form is such an important and exciting time for pupils – they are making decisions which will shape their futures and learning to become responsible, independent young adults, but we also want them to have fun, enjoy their friendships and be part of the school community. Our strong house structure is integral to school life and sixth formers take active leadership roles in the Houses, cementing their places in the fabric of St John’s and giving them a sense of achievement and responsibility.”

Reaching your academic potential can be easier in a familiar environment. Rebecca Parrish, Director of Sixth Form at Sydenham High School, emphasises the importance of hitting the ground running. “At the age of 16, anxieties about making new friends and fitting in in a new environment can really disrupt the start to A level education, and can often mean that the focus of the first term is on developing social networks rather than making the best possible start to the rigours of A level study.” John Parsons, Director of Sixth Form at Wimbledon High School, agrees. “There is something very special about being in the sixth form at any school. It’s the time for talents to be realised and new gifts developed. Feeling known is a huge advantage in terms of students staying
on in their current school: the teachers understand how individuals learn and just as importantly, they also understand the pastoral background.”

Whether students decide to stay or go, the jump to sixth form cannot be underestimated.

“Students enthuse about a new informality in their relationships with teachers, small classes and the chance to develop their own specialist areas of interest through extended project work,” says Katharine Crouch, Head at Sutton High School.

At most secondary schools, once pupils reach the sixth form they are taught in small groups, which promote discussion, debate and independent thinking. There is typically a wider range of subjects offered at A level than at GCSE, often up to 25 options including History of Art, Economics and Psychology. Dr Atkinson, Head of Upper School at Alleyn’s, believes flexibility is key
when helping pupils to choose their subjects.

“We have a broad range of subject options in our sixth form curriculum and we offer as much choice as we can – which is a great deal, allowing students to choose freely rather than through columns of subject choice – and this helps the students find a pathway that suits them best.”

For many, Pre-Us and EPQs give yet more opportunity to alight academic sparks. Dr John Taylor, Director of Learning, Teaching and Innovation at Cranleigh, a co-ed boarding school in Surrey, developed the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) and it is now the most rapidly growing qualification in the country, with 40,000 projects submitted last year. “A student works on a project with a supervisor over two years.

They choose a topic that really interests them, and they have to learn to manage their time and research the project. It’s all their own input and direction, they grow in independence and they are the expert, so they really develop the skill of independent learning.” Evidence shows EPQ boosts the pupil’s chance of getting into university and boosts their A level results too.

Many schools offer additional places at sixth form, enjoying the benefit of adding new faces to their existing student body. At Emanuel School, the broad curriculum is a draw to all-rounders who want to extend themselves academically while nurturing their passions. Head Robert Milne, says: “At 16, young people are often beginning to focus their talents: our new entry process, A level options and Extended Project Qualifcation recognise and harness such talents and personal ambitions.” The school offers A levels and the EPQ to give pupils the freedom to develop their interests.

At Alleyn’s there is an opportunity to join the school in lower sixth, although the majority of the students do stay on. “We expand our year group slightly and take on more students at 16+, some of whom join with a means-tested bursary. We are lucky to attract high-quality 16+ applicants, many of whom come to us seeking the coeducational experience that we can offer,” explains Atkinson.

Assimilating new pupils through induction weekends and workshops is helpful when new students start. “At Wimbledon High School, we welcome girls from other schools into Year 12 and we make a point of making them feel welcome, spending time with them one-to-one,” explains Parsons. “Our Dream in the Woods induction weekend in September brings much laughter as the girls camp out and put on a scratch performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Ernest Bevin College, a boys’ secondary school in Tooting with a co-ed sixth form, prioritises finding the right course for students and has a broad range of qualifications as a result. “We are ommitted to offering a wide and varied curriculum,” says Nick Mason, Head of Year 13, “by offering an extensive choice of A levels (22), BTEC Level 3 (six) and Level 2 courses (fve), as well as an array of vocational courses including Physical Training Instructor, Uniformed Public Services Course (so students can understand what the Army, Navy, Air Force, Fire and Police do – it is the equivalent of a GCSE), Retail, Engineering and IT.” Ernest Bevin achieves the strongest BTEC results in the borough, giving students an opportunity to thrive, and they allow students to stay and resit English and Maths GCSE if needed.


A levels are extremely difficult, challenging and intense qualifications and students must prepare thoroughly, beginning early. The following tips can be applied to any exams.

• Learn exactly what you need and no more. Have a copy of the specifcation and know thoroughly the content you will be examined on.

• Don’t cheat; if you don’t know it, learn it!

• Practice. A levels are as much about how you apply your knowledge as they are about expressing yourself on paper. Use a stopwatch and write answers to time to replicate the exam intensity.

• Change one small thing that is likely to be sustained. Perhaps commit to one additional hour of study per week, or carry revision cards with you when you travel. Write out from memory one key definition each night before you go to bed.

• The ten-minute rule. Commit to just ten minutes of study; you can achieve more than you might imagine and after ten minutes students are often ‘into’ their work and happy to carry  on. It’s about getting through that first ten!

Source: Eaton Square Mayfair

But for some, it’s simply time to make a complete change. Where as sixth form college MPW used to be thought of as a crammer for those needing to retake, it is now a popular choice for those wishing to step away from the restrictions of traditional school life. James Barton, Director of Admissions, explains: “For some, after years at a traditional boarding school, MPW works – they don’t want the rigidity, such as compulsory team sports, and they can create their own structure here. The majority tend to integrate very well and enjoy their independence.”

Sixth form colleges also give pupils the chance to make a fresh start in an age-specific environment. This year, DLD College, an independent sixth form in central London with a boarding option, was placed in the top 5% of colleges in England based on student progress in academic performance – the ranking recognises the advancement made by individual students between the end of Key Stage 4 and completing their A level studies. Also known as value-added scores, the results compare similar students across the nation to determine the positioning of each college. Principal Irfan Latif reveals his secret: “We stretch and challenge our students, motivating them and raising their own expectations of themselves. Classes are small, enabling students and teachers to focus upon the most effective ways of learning, and we focus on each student as an individual, offering each person the very best teaching and educational resources.”

Creating a positive environment where students can shine is both the challenge and opportunity presented to David Adkins at Thames Christian School, where the inaugural sixth form will open in 2020. “We will have a new building and we’re aiming for 60 to 80 people in the sixth form. Post-GCSEs our students will have more independence, more freedom and we will expect more from them.” Adkins believes there are advantages to a fresh start for the fnal two years of education. “Students widen their experience, they see how things can be done differently and they can be themselves in a different context.”

Schools and colleges offer more options than ever before, with a variety of courses and vocational training. Finding a positive environment with the appropriate opportunities will give your child the chance to thrive, grow and be equipped to step into the world, ready and prepared.


Do I want to study medicine, engineering or architecture?

Some careers require A levels in certain subjects. You will have to study A level Chemistry to become a doctor (or vet), and Maths for engineering and architecture. It’s always good to check with your school’s university advisor.

What if I don’t have a career in mind yet?

That’s fine – just try and keep options open. Play to your interests and strengths. Do some homework – look in depth at a range of A level courses and think about whether you would enjoy studying the material and talk to subject specialists, current A level students and careers advisors.

Choose wisely
Most students specialise in either the humanities or sciences and choosing subjects which are broadly connected helps to develop key skills such as essay writing or numerical problem solving. Some students can successfully mix from across the spectrum, but this tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

Source: Dulwich College

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