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Two students walking through the communal area of their sixth form.

How should you choose a sixth form?

If you’re just finishing your first term of Year 11 then you’ve probably already started to think about your next step in education. As you can apply to as many sixth forms as you want, you’ve got a lot of choice in where you go after you ‘graduate’ high school. How can you narrow down your options?

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


What if you want to stay at your current school?

You may have set your heart on remaining at your current school and this might be 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 your studies. You might find that familiarity is preferable if it allows you to focus on your studies from the very start of your course. 

On the other hand, it is important that you don’t make this decision just because it’s the easiest or because your best friend is staying. Here are some factors to think about so you’re sure it’s the right decision. 

  • Results – What are your school’s results like for the subjects you 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 is important to find out which teachers will be teaching you at the sixth form. You may love your current biology teacher, which is why you’ve decided to pursue the subject at A-level, however a different teacher may teach you in sixth form. If you know their teaching style didn’t work for you in the past then this could hinder your performance.
  • 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 need to pursue your chosen A-level subjects. If you are on the borderline then it may be a wise decision to pick a backup option; you 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 your decision. You can do this by looking at other sixth form’s prospectuses or heading to check out a place at an open day.  

Factors to consider when picking a sixth form or college

Maybe 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 the perfect place for you. 

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, your learning style, 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 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 you require closer supervision in your studies and do better with a more fixed support structure around you, then a sixth form may be a more appropriate option. Often sixth forms are smaller than colleges and you may find that you will 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 consider yourself a bit of a social butterfly, who enjoys an ever-changing set of faces, a college environment will likely be ideal. If on the other hand you are more introverted, the smaller, more intimate environment of a sixth form may work better for you. 

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

Which subjects do they offer?

Does the college or sixth form offer all the A-levels you’re looking at studying and can they timetable all of your subjects in?

This sounds like an obvious one, but what happens if you are set on a place that doesn’t offer one of the subjects you’ve picked for your A-levels? Or maybe the centre’s timetabling decisions mean two of your subjects will clash. In this instance, you will be 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 sixth form or college that caters to you even if the place doesn’t feel as good a fit for you? 

How far away are they? 

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 do the journey there and back yourself 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 are not 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.

Results 

The weighting you put on the importance of the centre’s results may depend entirely upon your ambitions beyond sixth form. If you are aiming towards a future which relies upon achieving high A-level results then you may consider a centre’s 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 sixth forms or colleges should be in your shortlist is by comparing their average A-level results to what you are aiming for. If you need all As then it’s not advisable for you to go to a centre where the average A-level results are Cs. Hoping you 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/specified year.

How do they 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 centre’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 centre’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 should be a supportive, accepting environment.

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 your personal statement if you 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 you to explore – not only for your fulfilment and development, but also for university admission success.

Activities and clubs a sixth form or college might offer:

  • Sport
  • Music
  • Duke of Edinburgh
  • Extended Project Qualification
  • Clubs e.g. chess, debating
  • Art

Facilities

A-level timetables are dramatically different from the timetables of students in KS3 and KS4. At sixth form you will have lots of free periods and this time should (for the most part) be used for independent study. You will be more motivated to study during these periods if there is a well-equipped environment to support your 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 you have access to computers?

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 are having straight away, with support strategies put in place to assist you. 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 you will have with staff. Your main form of contact 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, students may feel safer sharing any problems. Additional staff add to this support network and could include counsellors 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 you are 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 the sixth form or college will support you through the admissions process. This is especially important if you have 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 or 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 you’re aiming for, then finding out how many students have achieved this at the centre is useful. If the information isn’t on their website, don’t be afraid to email and ask for it.

SEND

If you have a special education need or disability (SEND) then it’s really important you find out exactly how a centre will support you, 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 needs in lessons. Discussing your needs with a centre and seeing how they react is a really good way of gauging how well they will accommodate you.

If you have a physical disability you may want to consider the size of a school or campus and the ease at which you will be able to move around. Once you have narrowed down a shortlist, you may be able to contact a centre and get special dispensation to look around and see how accessible the facilities are and if they are 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 of them inch just ahead of the other.

Exam boards

You’ve picked which subjects you 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 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. 


Picking somewhere can often feel like an impossible feat; there’s 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 can compare when looking for a place for you to study for your A-levels and how to weigh up your options. Everyone is different and what suits one person may not suit another. It’s important you think carefully about what you’re like, your aspirations, and the environment which will suit you. Our final bit of advice: always trust your gut. 

PMT Education is a non-profit education platform for students and teachers. We create free tools and resources to help GCSE and A-Level students pass their exams and navigate their path through education.

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