What should students and parents look for in a sixth-form? James Bown offers some timely advice

Deciding which Sixth Form to study in isn’t always a straightforward choice. A-levels are not a continuation of GCSEs. They are different qualifications with different demands.  Students and parents reasonably conclude that specialist teaching and sometimes a different institution are called for.  But what factors should they bear in mind when making their choice?

Small class sizes are crucial, says James Bown, Head of Sixth Form at Akeley Wood School. “The A level curriculum makes different demands of students and they often need targeted, individual attention, especially feedback.  That’s only really possible when class sizes are small.  Our classes generally have fewer than 10 students, in some subjects only three or four, so are more like university tutorial groups.   And they are taught by subject specialists.”

Mr Bown points out that the new, tougher A-level curricula being introduced by the government makes it even more important now that students receive as much personal, specialist attention as possible.

The range of subjects on offer is important, too, he says.  “Many schools, through no fault of their own, simply haven’t the resources to offer a broad curriculum.  At Akeley Wood we offer 25 A levels.  That allows us to provide an incredibly broad range of discipline combinations.  We are very flexible when it comes to subject mix and we are happy to put on a course even if the numbers are small. Some of our A-level options only have a couple of students on them.  But where we have the expertise, we are ready to provide students with that choice.”

Maths and physics are very popular subjects at Akeley Wood, Mr Bown says, but technical and practical disciplines are also much in demand.  “We have excellent art, music, and textile courses,” Mr Bown says. “And music technology is one of our fastest growing options.  The important thing is to choose a combination of A-levels that match a student’s strengths and ambitions.”

Another factor that parents and students should take into account when choosing a Sixth Form is the level of monitoring a school puts in place.  Mr Bown says Akeley Wood continuously tracks its Sixth-Form Students.  “As the government has downgraded the qualification weighting of AS-levels and moved to linear exams it’s vital that students are constantly monitored to assess how they are doing and what interventions may be necessary to keep them on track.

“It’s no good waiting until shortly before the final exam to implement remedial work,” he adds.  “Schools have to start as soon as a student starts.  Our monitoring is incredibly rigorous and detailed because without it students and teachers are flying blind.”

The quality of a school’s pastoral support, too, is crucial.  “No one should be in any doubt that A-levels are demanding,” says Mr Bown.  “Most students will at some point or another find aspects of a course difficult.  But all the evidence suggests that academic performance relies not just on preparation but also on a student’s wellbeing.  Students need qualified people to turn to if they have a problem.  And at Akeley Wood I’m delighted to say we not only have that support but we also assign teachers who are not course teachers as student mentors. They act much as university tutors do – as a counsellor and point of contact should students experience difficulties, supporting further the work done by teachers and tutors.”

Related to pastoral support is Akeley Wood’s enrichment programme. “Sixth-Forms have to offer more than academic courses.  Youngsters need to develop the skills and self-awareness that employers and universities increasingly demand,” says Mr Bown. “So we ensure all our Year 12s to do some form of community service as well as mentoring younger children.  Students find it incredibly rewarding and they are really useful things to cite on CVs.”

The quality of university advice is the final factor students and parents should consider when choosing a Sixth Form, according to Mr Bown.  “The overwhelming majority of our students go into higher education and more than 80 per cent get into the university of their choice.  We can reach those targets because we have dedicated staff with up-to-date course information, who use psychometric testing to determine which courses at what universities would best suit a student.”

Mr Bown says Akeley Wood offers students dedicated support for the Extended Project Qualification, which are increasingly used by universities since the downgrading of AS levels.

“We spend an awful lot of time with students talking to them about their ambitions, showing them university options they may not have considered and giving them the opportunity at seminars and open days to discover which university is best for them.  This is a bespoke service, not an informal accessory. A-levels after all are primarily passports to higher education.  And students should be wary of schools that don’t equip them with the knowledge to make an informed university choice.”

 

Mr Bown’s top tips

Choose a sixth-form with:

  • Small class sizes
  • Teachers who are subject specialists
  • Personalized learning
  • A rich subject mix and flexible A-level combinations
  • Rigorous student monitoring and tracking
  • Great pastoral support
  • Meaningful enrichment programmes
  • Tailored university advice

 

James Bown is Head of Sixth Form at Akeley Wood School