James Wardrobe argues that independent sixth-form colleges now offer a viable alternative to senior schools.
Independent sixth-form colleges have often been seen as an expensive haven for school outcasts and exam retakes. Now, they are being recognised as a viable option to independent school sixth forms. And their academic claims are impressive. A survey by the Council for Independent Education (CIFE), an association for independent sixth-form colleges, found that 47 per cent of CIFE students went on to Russell Group universities last year.
‘Our A-level exam results and success in university placements are better than the rest of the independent secondary sector, apart from the highly academically selective schools,’ claims Chris Kraft, principal of Duff Miller College, Kensington. Sixth-form colleges are no longer viewed as the poor relation of the independent sector.
His college is one of several independent sixth-form colleges, which have seen a substantial growth in transfers. Some colleges offer IGCSEs or even the more vocational BTECs in media, music and business.
‘Sixteen-year-olds have a much clearer idea nowadays about what they want to do at university; the type of degree course and the particular university,’ says Kraft. ‘They prefer our very clinical approach to university placement and their parents understand this. This type of ambitious student prefers a narrower and more focused modus operandi. They are happy to leave behind the more holistic style of school sixth form.’
Parents do worry about the greater amount of freedom and lack of constant supervision. Mike Kirby, who founded Ashbourne College, stresses that private sixth-form colleges offer an opportunity for change, growth and development. ‘There is an excellent balance between freedom and discipline. Students have much more responsibility to manage their academic and social lives. We still monitor their attendance, work submissions and exam preparations. Sixth-form college is far from the often solitary existence they will experience at university’.
‘The mindset of the students and their parents has completely changed,’ says Kraft. ‘Many pupils seek a bespoke solution to ensure entry into high-demand courses such as medicine and law at top universities.’ Mindful of parents’ concerns about the lack of extra-curricular activities and sport, these colleges now offer a range of options’. However, Kraft stresses, ‘the point is that our students come to us because they see the need for academic focus as paramount. They have had enough of the structured environment of school with all its extra-curricular obligations and are looking for education on their terms. For example, want to do their homework when they want to do it, not when the school dictates,’ says Kraft.
Sixth-form colleges are expensive, but scholarships and bursaries are available. It’s worth it for students who want a specialised sixth-form college offering up to 40 subjects, taught by specialist teachers, who are familiar with the requirements of the various examination boards and are often examiners for the syllabuses themselves. Steve Boyes, principal of Mander Portman Woodward in London, agrees. ‘Sixth-form college teachers have developed special expertise,’ he explains. ‘They only cater for Key Stage 5 and can focus on delivering A-level specifications in innovative and creative ways, which translates into high-level academic outcomes.’
Many parents will feel their teenager is better suited to a school environment. However for some, the more adult learning methods of a college resonate, and the sector has proliferated as a consequence.