How to future-proof your sixth form

David Morton, head of The King’s School Gloucester, writes about how the school transformed its sixth form provision

(As presented to delegates at the AMCIS annual conference 2023)

The sixth form represents the pinnacle of a senior school, where pupils take their final steps at the peak of the education which your school delivers. The students are your finished product and potentially your best ambassadors, undertaking leadership roles, volunteering in the community and even marketing the school to their friends.

“Sixth forms often fall at one extreme or the other: crowning glory or lacklustre story.”

As such, a school’s sixth form is an emblem of its aspiration, with students who are equipped with the skills and values that the school prioritises: world-ready young adults who are bright, articulate and inspiring, well-rounded citizens. As a school you are effectively saying to the world: “This is what we produce and your child can achieve this too.”

That said, it’s a sad fact that sixth forms often fall at one extreme or the other: crowning glory or lacklustre story.

Five years ago, when I joined as head, The King’s School, Gloucester’s sixth form was towards the less positive of those two extremes. Since then, we’ve been on a five-year journey, undergoing significant change to find a new vision and position in both the school and its community. Here is the – very much abbreviated – how and why of that journey.

School survey

In 2017, our previous head commissioned educational consultant Mungo Dunnett to undertake a survey into our sixth form offering. This survey made a number of findings, including the obvious fact that the building was “tired”. In fact, it was dark and uninspiring, with pupils trying to learn in small, cramped classrooms. The building also inflicted an unintended “apartheid” of lower and upper sixth pupils with each year group being confined to separate floors for social and academic activity. This was leading to poor behaviour, a lack of academic ambition and teacher dissatisfaction.

“The building was dark and uninspiring, with pupils trying to learn in small, cramped classrooms.”

The survey also confirmed that the large number of A-level options we were providing – over 25 subjects plus BTEC options in conjunction with Hartpury College – meant that classes were small and not cost-effective. On top of that, the school’s 16+ retention was unreliable. External recruitment was also unremarkable.

A new vision

It was at that point – September 2017 – that I joined the school as headmaster, along with a new head of sixth form, a crucial figurehead for the work ahead. We needed to make swift changes, increase class sizes, improve academic results, and become more cost-effective. By 2018 we had a vision for the future: a sixth form that provides a flagship building and education.

Asking searching questions

First, we asked ourselves some searching questions:

  • How happy are we with our sixth form? Are there known issues within the facilities, staff, academic, pastoral or co-curricular areas?
  • Can we carry out a SWOT analysis on our offering?
  • What are our key metrics over last five to 10 years: Retention? Recruitment? Average UCAS points? Mean teaching cost per pupil? Russell Group/Ivy League/Oxbridge?
  • What is the local competition offering, or not offering?
  • What is our niche in the post-16 market? Do we have a clear marketing message about what a sixth form education means at our school?
  • How does our sixth form academic curriculum stand up? We knew that we offered diversity, but was it cost-effective, and did it fit within our school ethos?
  • Are there obstacles in the way which decrease retention? For example, do parents understand that we maintain flat fees from Year 11 to Year 12? Are we consistent with financial support when pupils enter sixth form?
  • How do we perform in areas such as careers, academics, co-curricular, post-18 pathways, sixth form pupil roll, financial metrics, pastoral care?
  • How could we market our sixth form better? How could we use pupil-led content?
  • Are there local maintained schools that end at 16 which we can target with our sixth form marketing?
  • Where are the easy wins financially? Eg are we using pupils as academic mentors, to lead societies etc?
  • Are we communicating sufficiently with parents? Parents need to see value for money and to understand what their “investment” will produce in their child.
  • Do we require a minimum number of pupils in order to offer an A-level course? Are we sharing that with staff?

What makes a great, independent school sixth form?

We considered all the elements that make up a first-class, independent school sixth form and ensured that we explained clearly how we develop them at our school:

  • Academic strength and depth. Can we: offer exciting subjects; be more selective; teach in new ways (collaborative lessons, ICT, spaces to work together)?
  • Stretch and challenge: Offer the Extended Project Qualification? Essay-writing or public-speaking competitions? Lead younger pupils in academic clubs? Offer work experience or careers lunches in association with our network of alumni and parents?
  • How can we show that we know, support and value each pupil as an individual: year group size and house/form size are so important if a sixth form college education is delivered on a much larger scale.
  • There is a sense that some pupils are less independent than a decade ago, whilst their parents have high expectations of school. How can we prevent pupils from drifting academically and prevent them from making poor choices inside/outside of school? A carefully constructed, engaging PSE programme is critical here, as well as a soft contract with the students to remind them that high standards are required of them. After all, the workplace may beckon very soon after A-levels are completed.
  • Co-curricular and character education: a pupil leaves your school as a young adult with most attributes fully formed: confident, articulate, rounded, resilient. We must ensure that every pupil has the opportunity to develop these characteristics.
  • Strong post-18 pathway support: independent schools have the potential to add value in ways which the maintained sector cannot offer: sixth form is a two-year pathway towards personalised choices: university/ apprenticeship/work/further training etc.
  • Joining an alumni network which can offer advice, work experience, placements, mentoring, a “club” for life: school support does not end when Y13 does.
  • Developing C21st-ready young adults with skills such as creativity or teamwork, and who understand equality, diversity and inclusion.
  • Leadership opportunities: Pupils have an active involvement in decision-making: pupil voice, peer mentoring, running events such as house competitions, sports leadership, music etc.

Developing a plan of action

Having evaluated the existing situation, we agreed our plan of action, which was to:

  • Draw up plans for the wholesale re-development of Dulverton Sixth form Centre, to provide us with a stunning, flagship building that would help us sell “the vision”.
  • Appoint the head of sixth form to SLT with a whole school responsibility, as well as to take the lead on a new 16+ recruitment and retention strategy.
  • Create a new sixth form staff leadership team to take responsibility for areas such as pupil tracking or Higher Education advice.
  • Strengthen our educational offering with a compulsory, bespoke “Future Skills Programme” which we developed to include finance, car maintenance, cookery etc and volunteering for all sixth formers.
  • Issue a Bond to raise funds for the redevelopment of Dulverton House, an idea derived from attending the AMCIS Annual Conference in 2015. We understand that this was the second such bond to be issued in the UK.
  • Begin building work in 2018. We opened the new building in January 2020 with a new video. We pushed through the pandemic despite construction challenges.
  • Create a strong marketing strategy to ensure that everyone in the area knew about our sixth form building, the enhanced education we offered, and the school’s new ambition for excellence.

Marketing

Between 2018 and 2020 we promoted our new sixth form with:

  • A news release about “the vision” issued April 2020 to local press, education press and school social media feeds.
  • Editorial features and interviews with head placed in the two most-read digital business and lifestyle publications in the county; one targeted at families, the other at professionals.
  • Fortnightly news, photographs, construction updates etc on our social media sites and in external news publications using the hashtag #C21stDulverton.
  • A dedicated webpage for the launch of the Bond sales and updated with news, photographs and videos.
  • “Future Skills” editorial feature – reinforcing the desirability of King’s Sixth Form.
  • Architect’s impression film – which gave the first real visual insight into the fact that we really were creating a sixth form like no other.
  • On completion, striking, professional photography and a promotional video (seen above) shared across social media, the local press and education publications.
  • Launch events with local VIPs, journalists, feeder heads, parents and prospective pupils – all sadly prevented by Covid.

Measuring Success

Finally, we determined which metrics / targets were important for us to use to measure success and make sure our future trajectory is on track:

  • A Level/BTEC/VA results
  • Pupil roll, internal retention and external recruitment numbers
  • Achieving a Y12 of 60 in Sept 2023 (30 per cent increase in size, but maintaining personalised education and pastoral care)
  • Predicted future roll: remember the effect of creating an aspirational sixth form
  • Awards and accolades eg infographics from our AMCIS Impact Award

Conclusion

Two years after launching our new-look sixth form, I am so proud of everything that we have achieved at King’s. However, there has been much to learn and the journey is not yet over. The school roll has grown steadily in the lower years, partly as an inadvertent result of the success of the sixth form re-development. Now, then, we have a new challenge as these larger year groups have reached Year 10. Will our Sixth form offering have to evolve once more to face what lies just over the horizon?