How to support your child in picking a Sixth Form or College

Your child is just finishing their first term of Year 11 and you’ve probably already started to think about their next step in education. They can apply to as many sixth forms as they want; their possibilities are endless. How can you and your child narrow down the options? And how can you best support your child with one of their biggest decisions yet? 

Your role as parent should be to help your child gather all the information they can about their options so they can make an informed choice. It’s important to offer support, but equally important is the sense your child has that they are in charge of the decision-making process. 

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

Your child wants to stay at their current school

Your child may have already set their heart on remaining at their current school and for some students this is a good option. Sixth form is a mere two years and some students may take a while to settle into a new environment. The anxiety of a new place, teachers they don’t know and the stress of making new friends could detract from their studies. For some, familiarity is preferable if it allows them to focus on their studies from the very start of their course. 

It’s important that your child doesn’t make this decision because it’s the easiest or because their best friend is staying. Here are some factors to think about with your child so you’re both sure it’s the right decision. 

  • Results – What are the school’s results like for the subjects they want to do? Their school might top the league tables for Maths, but if your child wants to study English Literature and the English department is underperforming then you may want to look at other options.
  • Teachers – It is important to find out which teachers will be teaching your child. They may love their current biology teacher, which is why they’ve decided to pursue the subject at A-level, however a different teacher may teach them in sixth form. If you know their teaching style didn’t work for your child in the past then this could hinder their performance.
  • Entry Requirements – What are the entry requirements for their sixth form and will they safely get in? It’s important to know the exact grades your child needs to pursue their chosen A-level subjects. If they are on the borderline then it may be a wise decision to pick a backup option; they don’t want to be 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 their decision. This year it’s easier than ever to do so as ‘open days’ are all online; you can look at your options from the comfort of your sofa.

Factors to consider when picking a sixth form or college

Maybe their current school doesn’t have a sixth form, or perhaps they think a fresh start in a new environment is preferable. Here are some possible aspects to consider while searching for the perfect place for your child. 

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 your child and what kind of environment they feel they will do best in at this stage in their 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 students who enjoy working independently and relish their freedom. Moreover, the hands-off approach that colleges take may prepare students better for university, where contact hours are minimal, and success depends on a student’s ability to organise and motivate themselves and on their capacity for independent study.

Not all students suit this approach so early in their academic journey. If your child requires closer supervision in their studies and does better with a more fixed support structure around them, then a sixth form may 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 your child is a bit of a social butterfly and enjoys an ever-changing set of faces, a college environment will likely be ideal. If on the other hand your child is more introverted, the smaller, more intimate environment of a sixth form may be preferable. 

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

Which subjects they offer

Does the school offer all the A-levels your child wants to study and can they timetable their subjects in?

This sounds like an obvious one, but what happens if your child is set on a place that doesn’t offer one of the subjects they have picked for their A-levels? Or maybe the school’s timetabling decisions mean two of their subjects will clash. In this instance, your child is faced with a tricky choice. Should they substitute their dream subject for one they are less passionate about, so that they can attend their first-choice institution? Or is it better to pursue their academic interests at a school that caters to them even if the place doesn’t feel as good a fit for them?

Distance from you

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

The journey time may look achievable on Google Maps. However, it’s always a good idea to have your child do the journey there and back themselves to see if they feel the journey is feasible on a daily basis. It’s especially useful to do this at the times they’re most likely to be travelling so they can get an idea of traffic, frequency of buses or trains and overall business (if they are 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 school’s results may depend entirely upon your child’s ambitions beyond sixth form. If your child is 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 your child is aiming for. If they need all As then it’s not advisable for them to go to a school where the average A-level results are a C. Hoping your child will outperform the average is a high-risk strategy.

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 child’s 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 your child will develop psychologically, socially and emotionally, and as such should be a supportive, accepting environment.

Extracurricular activities

The sixth form/college should provide opportunities for students to develop and explore their passions. Not only is this important in itself; extracurricular activities will play a leading role in your child’s personal statement if they choose to go into Higher Education. Universities accept students not only on the basis of their academic abilities but also on the assumption that they will contribute to university life. The personal statement is a space where students can provide evidence of their engagement with hobbies, sports, or their community and show they are a well-rounded individual. Thus, it is important that a sixth form or college offers a wide range of extracurricular activities for your child to explore – not only for their 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,
  • Art

Facilities

A-levels timetables are dramatically different from the timetables of students in KS3 and KS4. Sixth form students have lots of free periods and this time should (for the most part) be used for independent study. Your child will be more motivated to study during these periods if there is a well-equipped environment to support their learning. It’s a good idea to find out what facilities the centre has for working independently. Is there a library, how well stocked is it? Is there a sixth form study area? Will your child have access to computers? (if not it’s likely they will need a laptop which they can take to school with them). 

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 students are having straight away, with support strategies put in place to assist them. Equally, the system will also ensure that students who are on track and settled are still supervised. Assessing how good a centre’s pastoral support can be tricky. Some places will advertise themselves as supportive environments with watertight pastoral support structures, whereas current students will tell you otherwise. 

An indicator of the support system is what contact your child will have with staff. Your child’s main form of contact will be with their form tutor and teachers. Small tutor groups and class sizes mean tutors and teachers can get to know their students better. As a result, students may feel safer sharing any problems. Additional staff add to this support network and could include counselors or learning support staff. 

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 a student 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 your child is only just picking their A-levels and sixth form. But if your child knows that the next step in their academic journey is going to be Higher Education then it’s important to consider how well they support students through the admissions process. This is especially important if your child has aspirations of getting 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 give their students in the following areas:

  • 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 is able to support students with their applications. If getting into a Russell Group university, Oxbridge or onto a selective course like medicine or engineering is something your child is 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.

SEND

If your child has SEND then it’s really important you find out exactly how a centre will support them, both academically and pastorally. Some centres are far more geared up towards supporting SEND students than others. They may have specialist staff to give additional academic support, they may have specialist equipment for students to access or the capacity to do assessments. You may also want to find out how and if teachers are able to accommodate your child’s needs in lessons. Discussing your child’s needs with a school and seeing how they react is a really good way of gauging how well a centre will accommodate your child.

If your child has a physical disability you may want to consider the size of a school or campus and the ease at which your child will be able to move around. Once you and your child have narrowed down a shortlist, you may be able to contact a school and get special dispensation to look around and see how accessible the facilities are and if they are suitable for your child. 

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

Your child has picked which subjects they want to study but have you found out which exam board is taught for each subject? And does it even matter what exam board they teach? 

Broadly speaking, no. 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 child’s learning 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 their learning: there may be fewer online resources, fewer textbooks, and if you’re thinking about supplementing your child’s learning with tutors or revision courses these can be harder to find. 

Open Days

Due to Covid, most sixth forms are not running open days this year. Instead, some have uploaded lots of videos and resources to help potential students get a feel for their institution. Others are hosting online events such as webinars – you should put these in your diaries.

The downside to an open day being virtual is you don’t get to walk around and check out the facilities. You don’t get to witness teacher-student interactions physically meet the teachers and students and see their interactions; you can’t as easily gauge the ‘vibe’. However, one plus is that you can look at a lot more sixth forms from the comfort of your own home without having to traipse to multiple open days.

Although you won’t be able to visit sixth forms and colleges in person this year, there are other ways of getting a feel for a centre. One good way is finding feedback from students and parents from the school. You could join NextDoor or local facebook groups and find out what other parents think of places that their children go to. They will often be honest and you may get a better idea of a school from that than an open day where they are putting their best foot forward.

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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 looking for a place for your child and how to weigh up your options. Everyone is different and what suits one child may not suit another. It’s important you think carefully about what your child is like, their aspirations and the environment which will suit them. Our final bit of advice: always trust your gut.  

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