Eleanor Bernardes, Associate at LKMco, advises on sixth form versus college and how best to advise your students.
Exams are looming, open days are happening, and the recruitment fight is beginning between school sixth forms, Sixth Form Colleges, and FE colleges. Teachers and lecturers have been given targets for how many students they need to sign up to their courses if these courses are to be viable. The threat of redundancy looms large for some. Against this background, how can anyone be expected to give impartial advice to their students? Why should they? And how much does it really matter?
Is it really my role? I don’t know anything about FE colleges…
Since it became schools’ responsibility to manage the Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) provided to students, almost every study into the state of careers education in the UK has found the provision lacking. One of the main challenges is how schools - which directly benefit from keeping hold of their best students - can give impartial advice to students about their best next step after Key Stage 4.
FE Colleges and Sixth Form Colleges vs School Sixth Forms
FE colleges, Sixth Form Colleges and school sixth forms are very different institutions, and they offer different opportunities. It is important to understand these differences when having conversations with students about their choices. Students may not be aware of all of the available options, and by providing this information you can help them make informed decisions and avoid being overly swayed by peer or parental pressure.
The following differences are just the tip of the iceberg, and could be seen as pros or cons depending on the individual student:
School sixth form
- Teachers know students and have personal relationships that have developed over years
- Smaller cohorts
- Familiarity of school procedures and routines
- Student free time is often more tightly bound
- Discipline and disciplinary procedures are often enforced more strictly (as an extension of the lower school)
- Familiar peers
- The security of being a big fish in a small pond
- Smaller offering of (often) more traditional courses (A Levels/ IB) as well as a smaller selection of vocational options.
FE College and Sixth Form College
- Large and diverse student cohort (of background/age/experience)
- A fresh start
- Specialist teachers and lecturers who usually only focus on teaching one or two courses (as opposed to the many different courses/Key Stages that a secondary teacher could be delivering)
- Freedom and independence
- Students often expected to self-manage more/be more independent
- Large range of academic and vocational courses and apprenticeships offered
- Often less hours of taught time
- Timetables and start/finish times may be different
- More specialist resources and facilities available (especially for vocational courses)
Many students will thrive in the college environment, taking more responsibility for their learning and enjoying the challenges of being part of a larger and more diverse cohort. But other students are more likely to excel in the relative safety of the school environment, with teachers they know, and the routines they are used to.
Advising students on such a critical decision is a big responsibility but here are three things you can do to help ensure your students get the best support possible,
Things to do now:
1. Find out what your students are considering doing next. Have they explored all of the local options that they might be interested in, or are they making uninformed decisions? Point them in the direction of the useful sources of information like:
- Local prospectuses (there should be a selection kept in the school library – if there isn’t, start one!)
- Local institutions’ websites
- National websites like: apprenticeships.gov.uk, the The National Careers Service, Studential, and Unifrog’s new College & sixth form tool.
2. Go to college open days and get to know what they have to offer. Focus on:
- The resources available (such as science labs, music studios, professional kitchens, sports facilities and theatres)
- The courses offered, and what they consist of – use this as an opportunity to quiz the staff: how are the courses structured? How big are the class sizes? What is the contact time? How many different teachers deliver the courses? What is the balance between exam and practical work? Where could the courses lead and are they valued by employers? Have students been tracked after completing the course? In which case, what have they gone on to do? Is there a good track record of progression and retention on these courses?
- Networking – it might feel like you are in direct competition with your colleagues at FE colleges, but it is in the interest of your students that you work past this. Get to know them and swap contact details. That way you, or your students, can reach them with any questions that you might have.
3. Be honest with yourself. If you are not confident about providing informed, impartial advice then look into who else might be able to offer support. For example, is there a careers coordinator at your school who might be able to help?