How should I pick a sixth form or college?

You’ve just finished your first term of Year 11 and you’ve probably already started to think about your next steps. You can apply to as many sixth forms as you want; your possibilities are endless. So, this article helps you think about how you can go out narrowing down your options in terms of where you should go to study, post-16. Whilst this may seem daunting – and the decision is a big one – there’s plenty of sources of guidance out there – from your teachers, parents, to the internet and this very article.

The best way to go about making this decision is by gathering all the information you can about your options, so you can make an informed choice. This is where you’ll be studying for the next couple of years, so at the end of the day, you should be in charge of the decision-making process – not your parents or your teachers. 

This article should help you navigate the maze of options available to you. You can use it to work out which factors are most important to consider when making your decision, and it will help you weigh up the pros and cons of any sixth forms or colleges you are considering. 

  • Do I want to stay at my current school?
  • Factors to consider when picking a Sixth Form or College
  • How to assess a centre’s A-level results
  • Extracurricular and pastoral considerations
  • Miscellaneous
  • Open Days

Do I want to stay at my current school?

It may be that your high school only caters for students up to the age of 16, in which case you’ve got now choice but finding another institution to continue your studies at. However, if your current high school does offer a sixth form attached to it, it can be tempting to stay on at the same place, if you had a relatively good experience at high school. Even if you have already set their heart on remaining at your current school, however, it may be worth taking a little look at your other options, just to check that staying on at the same place really is the best choice.

That said, sixth form is a mere two years and you may think you’re someone who takes a while to settle into a new environment. The anxiety of a new place, teachers you don’t know and the stress of making new friends could detract from your studies. Familiarity might be something which is preferable if it will allow you to focus on you studies from the very start of you course. Here are some factors to think about so you’re both sure it’s the right decision. 

  • Results – What are your school’s results like for the subjects they want to do? Your school might top the league tables for Maths, but if you want to study English Literature and the English department is underperforming then you may want to look at other options.
  • Teachers – It might be important to find out which teachers will be teaching you. If you love your current biology teacher – for example, they may be the reason you’ve chosen to study it at A-Level – you need to be aware you might not get taught by them when you hit sixth form.
  • Entry Requirements – What are the entry requirements for your school’s sixth form and will you safely get in? It’s important to know the exact grades you’ll need to pursue you chosen A-levels; if you’re are on the borderline then it may be a wise decision to pick a backup option, so you’re not left high and dry on results day.

It’s also a good idea to look at a few other alternatives even if it’s only to consolidate your decision.

Factors to consider when picking a sixth form or college

So if your current school doesn’t have a sixth form, or perhaps you think a fresh start in a new environment is preferable, here are some possible aspects to consider while searching for your perfect sixth form or college. 

Sixth Form vs College

A sixth form is connected to a school, while a college is an institution which solely specialises in further education. Although what they offer is broadly the same, they often have different approaches to the way in which they support students both academically and pastorally. Which one is more suitable depends entirely on you and what kind of environment you feel you will do best in at this stage in your life. 

Colleges are usually bigger than sixth forms and have a more hands-off approach to learning. Students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own education and often there is less supervision. This environment would best suit you if you enjoy working independently and relish your freedom. Moreover, the hands-off approach that colleges take may prepare you better for university – if this is a path you’re wanting to pursue – where contact hours are minimal, and success depends on your ability to organise and motivate yourself and on your capacity for independent study.

However, you may feel like this approach won’t suit you so early in your academic journey – which is completely fine! If you think you’ll thrive more under closer supervision of your studies, and will do better with more of a fixed support structure around you, a sixth form could be a more appropriate option. Often sixth forms are smaller than colleges and some students do better in a more intimate setting.

The social environment is something that should be taken into account when choosing a sixth form or college. If you think of yourself as a bit of a social butterfly and enjoy an ever-changing set of faces, a college environment will likely be ideal. If on the other hand you’re more introverted, the smaller, more intimate environment of a sixth form may be more suited to your personality.

Is one type of institution ultimately better than the other? Not really, it all depends on your character and on what conditions suit you the most.

Which subjects are on offer?

Does the school offer all the A-levels you want to study and can your timetable fit all your subjects in?

This sounds like an obvious one, but it’s important to check that the college or sixth form you want to study at actually offers the subjects you want to study. Sometimes institutions have a smaller range of subjects on offer, so if you’re wanting to study something more niche it’s important to double check you can actually take it.

It’s also important to check that the sixth form or college actually let’s you take the combination of subjects you want to study together! Sometimes, timetabling means that two or more subjects may clash – you can check if this is the case by heading on over to the centre’s website or getting in touch to see if they offer any information on how they create timetables – sometimes the structure is already in place, and you have to take subjects from certain ‘blocks’.

In this instance, you’re faced with a tricky choice: should you substitute your dream subject for one you are less passionate about, so that you can attend your first-choice institution? Or is it better to pursue your academic interests at a school that caters to you even if the place doesn’t feel as good a fit for you?

Distance from you

How far away is it from your house and how are you going to be getting there? 

The journey time may look achievable on Google Maps. However, it’s always a good idea to have you do the journey there and back to see if you feel the journey is feasible on a daily basis.

It’s especially useful to do this at the times you’re most likely to be travelling so you can get an idea of traffic, frequency of buses or trains and overall business (if you aren’t likely to get a seat on the bus or train the journey will feel a lot longer!). Travelling is tiring and can be stressful so this is a really important factor to take into consideration.

How to assess a centre’s A-level results

The weighting you put on the importance of the sixth form or college’s exam results may depend entirely upon your ambitions beyond sixth form. If you’re aiming towards a future which relies upon achieving high A-level results then you may consider a schools’ results table to be one of the most important factors when narrowing down your choices. Here are some ways you can assess a centre’s results.

Average A-level results

The quickest way of working out which schools should be in your shortlist is by comparing their average A-level results to what you are aiming for. If they need all As then it’s not advisable for you to go to a sixth form / college where the average A-level result is a C.

The government has a tool which allows individuals to access A-level results data for individual institutions. You can, for example, find out the mean grade achieved by A-level students in a particular year.

Below we can see that this Sixth form’s cohort had 144 A-level students and they averaged a C.

Whereas the college below had 769 students in and they averaged a B.

How do their results compare to the national average?

Many centres publish their results on their website; these are usually found in either the prospectus or a results section. If they are difficult to find or non-existent, this could be a red flag. 

Results will usually be in the form of a table. You will usually find that a school’s performance is broken down into the percentage of students who have achieved certain grades. A typical example is the percentage of pupils who have achieve an A*/A, the percentage of pupils who get A*-B and the percentage of pupils who pass. The centre will have an overall percentage which can be compared to the national average (this can be found at the bottom of the table below). 

Results by subject

Some centres may also give a more detailed breakdown of their results, showing results by subject. This table will enable you to get a better idea of the performance of certain departments. If you can’t find this breakdown on a school’s website then you should email and ask for one.

Below are the percentage of students in 2019 who achieved each grade or above broken down by subject. This is the Joint Council for Qualifications results table for A-levels, published by Ofqual. We decided to include 2019 data as they weren’t impacted by centre assessed grades and algorithms which were implemented due to the cancellation of exams by Covid-19. You can use this table to compare to the sixth forms or colleges you are looking at. 

Ofqual August 2020: Results table for GCSE and A-levels in 2019.

In addition to the above, Ofqual have also published a more detailed breakdown of A*/A achievement. You can find it here

Extracurricular and Pastoral Considerations

While academic results are important, your wellbeing should be a major factor in the decision-making process. Sixth form/college isn’t just a place for higher education; it’s also a place where you will develop psychologically, socially and emotionally, and as such you should think about going to a place you’ll feel most supported and comfortable, as well as somewhere offering the right extracurricular activities, if this is something you’re interested in.

Extracurricular activities

The sixth form/college should provide opportunities for you to develop and explore your passions. Not only is this important in itself; extracurricular activities will play a leading role in you personal statement if you choose to go into Higher Education.

Universities will consider your application not only on the basis of your academic abilities, but also on the assumption that you will contribute to university life. The personal statement is a space where you can provide evidence of your engagement with hobbies, sports, or your community and show you’re a well-rounded individual. Thus, it is important that a sixth form or college offers a wide range of extracurricular activities for you to get involved in, if you want to – not only for your fulfilment and development, but also for university admission success.

Activities or clubs a sixth form or college might be expected to offer:

  • Sport
  • Music
  • Duke of Edinburgh
  • Extended Project Qualification
  • Clubs – chess, debating, charities
  • Art

Facilities

A-levels timetables are dramatically different from the timetables of students in KS3 and KS4. When you hit sixth form, you’ll have lots of free periods and this time should (for the most part) be used for independent study. You child will be more motivated to study during these periods if there are good facilities for study, for example a good library or even a dedicated sixth form study area. Will you have access to computers, or will you have to bring a laptop with you every day?

Pastoral Support

For some centres pastoral support may be seen as separate from academic support – whereas other centres see them as combined. Either way, good pastoral care normally boils down to how good the information sharing between staff is about their students.

A good pastoral support system will identify any problems you may be experiencing straight away, with support strategies put in place to assist them. That said, assessing how good a centre’s pastoral support can be tricky… Some places will advertise themselves as supportive environments with watertight pastoral support structures, even if current students tell you otherwise. 

An indicator of the support system is what contact you will have with staff. Your main form of contact, in terms of support will be with your form tutor and teachers. Small tutor groups and class sizes mean tutors and teachers can get to know their students better. As a result, you may feel safer sharing any problems. Additional staff add to this support network and could include counsellors or learning support staff – check if these are services offered by the centres you’re shortlisting. 

Other signs of good pastoral support may include mentoring from older students and teacher-student meetings to track and assess progress. If the latter is in place, it is more likely that any academic difficulties you may be having will be identified and dealt with promptly. 

Support with university admissions

It may feel a bit early to be thinking about university when you’re only just picking your A-levels and sixth form. But if you know that the next step in your academic journey is going to be Higher Education, then it’s important to consider how well you’ll be supported thoughout the admissions process. This is especially important if you have your sights set on into Oxbridge or a course which has an entrance exam requiring specialist preparation, such as MAT or UCAT.

You can ask a sixth form/college what kind of support they would be able to offer you when the time comes to it, including:

  • Personal statement writing 
  • Entrance exam support –  (e.g. UCAT, BMAT, PAT, NGAA, STEP) 
  • Interview Preparation

Past performance in terms of students getting into universities and courses is the best indicator of how well a centre will be able to help you with your university applications. If getting into a Russell Group university, Oxbridge or onto a selective course like medicine or engineering is something you are aiming for, then finding out how many students have achieved this at the school is useful. If the information isn’t on their website, don’t be afraid to email and ask for it, or mention it at the open evening, if you choose to attend it.

SEND

If you have any special educational needs or disabilities, then it’s really important that you find out exactly how you’ll be supported by the sixth form or college you’re considering, both academically and pastorally. Some centres with be far more geared up towards supporting SEND students than others might be – maybe they can offer specialist staff to give additional academic support, or have specialist equipment for students to access. You may also want to find out if and how teachers will be accommodating your needs during lessons. Discussing your needs with a school, and seeing how they react is a really good way of gauging how well a centre will accommodate you as they should.

If you have a physical disability you may want to consider the size of a school or campus and the ease at which you’ll be able to move around. Once you’ve narrowed down a shortlist of potential sixth forms / colleges, you may be able to contact them and get special dispensation to look around and see how accessible the facilities are and if they will be suitable for you.

Miscellaneous

If you’ve got to this stage and there’s two places which are neck and neck then the following could help one inch just ahead of the other. 

Exam boards

If you know which subjects you want to study, the next step is to find out which exam boards you’ll be studying them with – this can matter a lot with some subjects, such as humanities subjects. For example, you could study completely different periods of History depending on the exam board and even what the centre decides to teach. It’s the same with the books a centre might offer for English – it can differ, institution to institution and exam board to exam board.

All exam boards should have the same standards as they are all regulated by Ofqual, the regulatory body for examinations. However, there are subtle differences between exam boards. Some exam boards focus more heavily on learning content whereas others focus more on application of theory. You can research different exam boards and see which would suit your learning style more. For example, here is an article comparing the different Biology exam boards.

Furthermore, some exam boards are less popular than others. This can mean it’s harder to find resources to support your learning: there may be fewer online resources and fewer textbooks.

Open Days

Lots of sixth forms may be going back to running open days in person this year, and others may opt to host virtual open days or upload lots of videos and resources to help potential students get a feel for their institution. Open days are generally very important – they give you the chance to figure out if you can see yourself studying there, and judge the ‘vibe’, especially if this is a new place you haven’t studied at before.

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Picking somewhere can often feel like an impossible feat, there are so many factors to take into consideration and so many places to choose from. We hope this has helped you get an idea of the sorts of things you should think about when considering how to choose where to study and how to weigh up your options. Everyone is different and what suits one person may not suit another. It’s important you think very carefully about your learning style, what you’re after out of the sixth form / college experience, and what environment will suit you best. Our final bit of advice: always trust your gut.  

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