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Sixth formWhat makes a great sixth-form?

by Kate Hilpern

So your child wants to do A levels. For most, this will mean staying on at their current school, either because they want to, you want them to, or it just feels safe. Other youngsters decide on a fresh start with new people or a wider range of courses, or perhaps their school doesn’t have a sixth-form. And then there are those that aren’t quite sure.

Whatever camp your family falls into, it’s essential to take time out to make the right choice and where possible, weigh up the competition. We know from personally reviewing thousands of schools and colleges across the UK that some students wind up compromising on subject choices. While some schools run only the most traditional A levels, others offer everything from film studies to physical education and maybe throw a few BTECs into the mix too. Sixth-forms also vary dramatically in the number of courses on offer and the timetabling logistics matter more than you probably realise, with some schools guaranteeing literally any subject combo whereas in others if, say, Latin and French are timetabled at the same time, you can’t do both, no matter what.

Ask about results. Get the full breakdown – warts and all – not just the simple summary and find out previous students’ common university destinations to check these align with your child’s own aspirations. Find out how many A levels are you’ll be expected to take. And can you drop one if it all gets too much?

What kind of help will your offspring get with finding the right course and university and then applying via UCAS? Some schools offer mock interview practice, guaranteed work experience, special Oxbridge classes and meticulous help with personal statements, among other things. Does the school recognise that UCAS isn’t the ticket to a hotshot career? We’re always impressed when schools embrace alternative routes, such as degree apprenticeships. How does the school or college get students thinking about different careers and industries, for example through careers fairs, outside speakers and getting students out into the business world?

What’s the teaching like? A question for existing students. And class sizes? The search for small teaching groups is often a key pull for parents and students at sixth form. The culture matters too, including the amount of freedom students get. A sixth-form college is a good way to bridge the gap between school and university, whereas other young people will be better suited to the more cosseted environment of a school. But don’t make assumptions – there are huge differences between schools, with some sixth-formers never allowed off school premises during free periods or even lunchtimes, whereas in others you get a pretty free reign. Find out about uniform too – some sixth-forms don’t require you to wear one, but there may still be rules, such as ‘business dress only.’

It would be easy to bypass pastoral support at this higher end of adolescence, but actually this is a time when strong pastoral care can be critical. In fact, coupled with academic support, this should be one of your deciding factors. Find out how many staff members are dedicated to these areas, how often your child will meet with them and what tactics they take if your child falls behind or struggles in any way. Is there a counsellor on hand too?

Then there’s location and the facilities. Get a tour of the buildings and take particular note of the dedicated sixth-form areas, including the common room. Are there enough collaborative and quiet study areas? Sometimes sixth-formers get their own library. But while some sixth-form centres we visit look like top-notch corporate offices, don’t instantly dismiss the rest - we have seen for ourselves that you can have the swankiest working spaces and offer a much poorer overall experience for sixth-formers than in a 1970s-built comprehensives in dire need of a lick of paint. Leadership roles matter, and we don’t just mean prefects. Do sixth-formers run their own extra-curricular clubs or put on their own drama performances?

Check the inspection reports – all schools and colleges are accredited either by Ofsted or ICI. Are they outstanding or excellent in the areas that matter most to you? But what should really swing it for you, once you’ve worked your way through the checklists here, is your child’s gut feeling. Take advantage of open days, soak up the atmosphere, continue to visit and ask questions of local colleges and schools and ultimately make sure your child feels happy with their choice.

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