What (Actually) is a Sixth Form College in the UK?

In A-Level, General by Think Student EditorLeave a Comment

In the UK, “sixth form” and “college” are both extensively used terms in conversation with teachers, parents, and exam-age students. Pupils often ask what a sixth form college actually is. Particularly being in Year 11, it is vitally important to understand what the term means and how sixth form college can differ from the other options available to you for the final two years of your education. 

In the simplest terms possible, a sixth form college is an institute of education devoted to giving students between the ages of 16 and 19 qualifications to allow them to go to higher education at university. Sixth form is classed as further education, which is compulsory in the England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In this article, you can read about the differences between the two types of sixth form, the best-suited personalities to college, the courses offered and how going to college can affect your future. 

What is a Sixth Form College in the UK?

As mentioned previously, sixth form colleges provide education to students in Years 12 and 13, so that they can gain the qualifications needed to take them on to the next stages of their career.  

College can mean different things in different countries, such as in the United States where college is the equivalent to our university. In the UK, a sixth form college is set up in a comparable way to British universities, only the teaching is of an A-Level or equivalent standard. 

Whilst previously, a handful of teenagers would have dropped out of school at age 16, a change in the law as of 2013 means all students now must stay in some form of education until the end of Year 13. You can click here to read about what happens if you don’t. 

There are three options after a student finishes secondary school. These are to stay in school sixth form, go to a sixth form college or take on an under-18s apprenticeship with a company in your desired career path. Although the third is a workable possibility, it cuts your future work choice down into a very slim field, so most students choose to either attend school sixth form or college.  

What Do You Learn at Sixth Form College?

As a student attending college, you have several choices as to the style of learning you wish to have, as some colleges offer three distinct types of qualification. One of your options is taking three or four A-Level courses, just like in a school, so that you can learn about subjects which have previously been visited during GCSE, but in more detail. 

Some sixth form colleges may also offer BTEC courses, which are very similar in structure to the education offered at university. They are similar in that students can choose one broad area of study rather than studying many subjects they don’t care about like at school. 

Your final option, which isn’t offered by as many sixth form colleges, is following the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. To complete the course, you must study six subjects, and take an exam for each, write an extended research essay, and form an oral presentation about how society absorbs and utilises knowledge, as well as contributing to the creativity, activity, service section. 

Click here if you would like to find out more about how the IB Diploma works. 

What are the Differences Between a School Sixth Form and Sixth Form College?

There is a big step up from GCSE to A-Level work, and this jump becomes even bigger if you choose to move to sixth form college. However, each different education environment suits some people better than others. Therefore, it is important to know what the differences between school sixth form and college are, as finding the right place for you will make the transition more comfortable. 

Sixth Form

Sixth form colleges give students more freedom. At a school sixth form, you are obviously given more independence than younger year groups. However, there is still a large focus on making sure you turn up to classes, complete homework, and finish A-Levels with a decent grade. At college, there is less guidance, so if the work isn’t done, they won’t chase it up. 

The courses offered at sixth form colleges are often less well-known, more precise and there is a wider variety. Compared to school, where there may be thirty subjects offered as A-Level courses. Colleges also provide BTECs, which can be vastly different from anything students have ever experienced before, just like in university.  

Sixth Form College

Colleges lean towards a university teaching style, while schools stick to the same methods. Because there are bigger classes, life at college is basically the same as at university, only the work is easier and there is no need to find any accommodation.  

There is less opportunity for extra-curricular activities to help boost university applications. There are no younger year groups to mix with, so schemes such as peer mentoring and leadership do not exist, which can be useful for applications. 

College gives you looser restrictions, so there are no strict dress codes, and a shorter amount of time is spent in lessons. However, if you are prone to forgetting homework and don’t have the motivation for independent work, school will give you the extra push to make sure those grades are as good as possible. 

How Should You Choose the Right Sixth Form College for You?

If you have decided that sixth form college is the right path for you to take, it is time to decide where you actually want to go. There are several factors to consider when choosing the correct sixth form college for you:

  • The range of subjects available and the availability of each. This will take some research time, but one of the most important things to get right when moving to a sixth form college is getting all of your first or second choice subjects.  
  • One of the greatest things about moving to sixth form college is how many more subjects are available, so don’t waste the opportunity! If a college can’t fit all your first-choice subjects into a timetable, then it’s always worth looking at some other institutions too.  
  • The facilities available for use. Particularly if you’re looking at arts, sciences, or other practical subjects, make sure to check out the facilities available at the school. For example, if your passion is photography and the department doesn’t have any photographic film or a dark room, there is a limited media you could use in your projects, so you may wish to search elsewhere. 
  • How well built is the college community. Lots of students who have attended college in the past say the trickiest thing to cope with is loneliness and lack of support. The atmosphere completely changes between school and college, so looking for one with a good support system and a range of activities outside lessons is vital to cope with the jump.

Click here to read about all the factors you may want to consider before choosing your sixth form college.

How Should You Approach the Application to Sixth Form College? 

Once you’ve found a suitable college and are happy with the courses available, it’s time to start the application process. The first and most important thing to remember is giving yourself enough time to complete the forms before the deadline.  

When Should You Start Applying for Sixth Form College?

There are several steps involved in the process of college applications, detailed below, and your statements will sound much more confident and academic if you’ve had the time to carefully consider what you write, rather than hurrying through the chore the night before.  

Applications can start as early as the autumn of Year 11 and are usually closed before the New Year, so you’ll need to have visited open days and done your research during the summer between Years 10 and 11 (or earlier!). 

You can click here to find out more information about the best time to start applying for sixth form college. 

What Information Should be Included in the Application?

Then, you need to start thinking about the main contents of your application. It should consist of your personal details, such as name and address, a personal statement, and your predicted grades from the last set of mock exams you took.  

The personal statement is the most important thing to get right. You can click here to view a detailed article full of top tips on how to write a personal statement specifically for sixth form college. In the statement, you should include information about your personality, work ethic and any other good qualities you have. 

You can then move on to speaking about your achievements, both academic and extra-curricular, and any skills you’ve gained through experience, such as leadership with children in younger year groups.  

You should try to link anything added back to the course you wish to apply for (which should be listed somewhere previously in the application). And that’s it. You’re done!

Is it Better to Do A-Levels or a BTEC Course?

One thing lots of students worry about when applying to college is whether they will be accepted at universities if they take a BTEC course rather than three A-Levels. Whilst an A-Level proves that you have academic capabilities. BTEC qualifications show that a person has real life skills and will use them effectively in the workplace, which lots of universities appreciate. 

So, most of them will accept you even if you have a BTEC rather than A-Levels, but this depends on the university you’re looking at. 

You have to be careful about checking the admissions requirements for some of the top universities like Oxford and Cambridge. They say that if you have the right grades, they are willing to consider a BTEC student, so long as they also have one or two A-Level qualifications in addition. 

When the time comes to consider whether you’re better off taking a BTEC course or A-Levels, you need to think carefully about what your future ambitions are and do some research into the requirements for your chosen university. It is possible that just taking BTECs with no other qualifications may hinder your future employment progress. 

To find out more about which universities accept BTECs and why, click here and read this article.

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