How to choose a sixth form college

How to choose a sixth form college

Deciding to move from a school to a sixth form college can be quite a daunting prospect. The criteria for selecting a sixth form college are, in some ways, quite different from choosing a school and many parents and students will not previously have experienced this process. In this article, we aim to provide a step-by-step guide of the kinds of things to consider when looking for a sixth form college. We hope that our advice will help you to make an informed decision about the college that might suit you best for A level, whether or not that is MPW.

Things to consider

There are a number of key areas to focus on when researching a sixth form college, including:


A college is only as good as its teachers, so the first stop for any student or parent when researching an institution should be to learn more about the teaching staff. Sixth-form colleges usually attract well-qualified teachers who are passionate about their subjects and enjoy the opportunity to educate at a high level, so expect to see that a number of staff have Masters qualifications or Doctorates.  Inspection Reports are a quick way of gaining an overview of the quality of teaching in a college and, if you are seriously considering an institution, it is a good idea to meet some teachers if possible or see some lessons in progress. Open Days are a good way of doing this and many colleges will welcome students who want to sit in on a lesson or two to learn more.


Most students at a sixth form college will continue on to university and the results that students achieve in their A levels (or equivalent) will dictate which institutions they can aspire to for the future. It goes without saying, then, that students will be most attracted to a school that is likely to help them achieve their highest potential and therefore make them strong candidates for their top university choices. Many schools will summarise an overview of their results for simplicity but you should also be able to obtain a full breakdown of performance from the Registrar or Admissions team, if you would like one. Some schools will also provide a list of previous students’ common university destinations, so you can check whether these align with your own aspirations.

National Average Results (summer 2016)**

A level passes at A*-A


A level passes at A*-B


A level passes at A*-E


GCSE five passes at A*-C


GCSE A*-C in English and Mathematics


**Source: GCSE and A level statistics provided by the Department for Education (13 October 2016)

University Applications

As the majority of students attending a sixth-form college plan to proceed to university afterwards, the level of support a college will provide to assist with the application process  is an important consideration for many. Every student applying to university will submit a written statement of suitability, usually as part of a UCAS Personal Statement, and it is therefore crucial to consider what assistance a college can offer its students making an application. In addition, students aiming for either a competitive discipline or a competitive university (or both) might be required to sit specialist entrance tests or attend an interview. Some colleges will offer entrance test tuition and mock interview practice so finding out exactly how this is organised (and whether or not it is a hidden extra cost) can be a valuable measure of a sixth form colleges.

You can read our university guides to find out how to complete your UCAS application.

Class Size

The search for smaller teaching groups is often a key motivator for parents and students in deciding to change from their current school to a sixth form college. When researching this aspect of a college it can be helpful to enquire about both the average and the maximum class size to gain a full understanding of the teaching approach. Two students taking Latin, for example, reduce the class average to an impressively low number but for someone aiming to study a more popular subject such as Mathematics this figure is not a fair representation of what their class sizes will be like.

A good college will encourage students to attend taster lessons or taster days which can be useful in gaining more of an understanding about an establishment’s approach to teaching, as well as an insight into student life in the college as a whole.

Subjects and Timetabling

Traditionally, sixth form colleges have been known to offer a wider range of subjects than might be on offer at other schools. For example, at a sixth form college you may have a greater chance of studying more unusual subjects such as Ancient Greek, Ceramics, Chinese, or Law than if you attended a school with more limited options. It is a good idea therefore to obtain the full list of available subjects at a college to see whether these fulfil any previously unconsidered areas of interest. The smaller class sizes and increased levels of one-to-one mentoring available at a sixth form college also mean that students can pursue study projects such as the Extended Project Qualification. This is an excellent way for a student to develop his or her independence of thought and is well-reputed by universities.

Some students will already be aware of their requirements in terms of timetabling and will simply need to ensure that the college can meet these. This might mean accommodating an unusual subject combination, permitting a student to take five A level subjects or enabling a student to study for the second half of two A level subjects while taking a third A level from scratch over a year. Sixth form colleges can be great solutions providers and finding one to accommodate an unusual educational request will usually be possible.

Inspection Reports

Inspection Reports are one of the most useful tools that a parent or student has at their disposal when researching a school or college. A sixth form college will usually be accredited by either Ofsted (maximum grade Outstanding) or the ISI (maximum grade Excellent) and colleges are required to display on their website a copy of their most recent inspection report. Be suspicious of any institution that fails to do this. An inspection report is the best way of gaining a full and unbiased overview of any school or college so reading the headline judgements at the very minimum is recommended.

>> Should you rely on ranking tables or inspection reports when choosing a school?

Ofsted Inspection Framework

Outstanding (1)

The quality of teaching, learning and assessment is outstanding, as are all or most other key judgements. The school’s thoughtful and wide-ranging promotion of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and their physical well-being enables pupils to thrive. Safeguarding is effective.

Good (2)

The quality of teaching, learning and assessment is at least good and all other key judgements are likely to be good or outstanding. Deliberate and effective action is taken to promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and their physical well-being. Safeguarding is effective.

Requires Improvement (3)

Where the school is judged to require improvement in any of the key judgements, the school’s overall effectiveness will require improvement. There are weaknesses in the overall promotion of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Safeguarding is effective.

Inadequate (4)

Any one of the key judgements is inadequate and/or safeguarding is ineffective and/or there are serious weaknesses in the overall promotion of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.

ISI Inspection Framework

The ISI use four judgement words: Excellent; Good; Sound; and Unsatisfactory
The ISI framework examines two key areas:

The quality of the pupils' achievements

This is examined through evidence of: development of knowledge and attainment levels over time; development of competence in communication and its application to other areas of learning; development of study skills, including ICT skills; achievements in scholarships and competitions, other academic distinctions, and success in sports, the performing and other arts; student attitudes towards learning, including ability to demonstrate initiative and independence, competence in working collaboratively and the extent to which students take leadership in their learning.

The pupils’ personal development.

This is examined through evidence of: self-esteem, self-confidence and resilience; spiritual understanding and an appreciation of non-material aspects of life; social awareness and ability to work effectively with others; demonstration of sensitivity and tolerance towards those from different backgrounds and traditions;  awareness of how to stay safe and understand how to be physically and mentally healthy.


A sixth form college bridges the gap between school and university, meaning that although greater independence and learning autonomy is fostered, students will still receive sufficient support. This is usually offered in two ways: through an Academic Support (or similarly named) Department; and through a pastoral team.

  • Academic Support

An Academic Support department is a good indicator of how seriously a college takes its responsibility towards assisting students in this manner – there should be a team of dedicated individuals available e and it should be possible to meet with a senior member of staff (a Head of SEN of similar) to discuss what the department does and how it can meet any particular needs.

Sixth form colleges aim to equip students with the skills they need to succeed at university and beyond which benefits all students, not only those who have particular educational needs. It might be a good idea as part of your research to find out more about what general support is on offer and whether a student will be able to improve their essay writing or revision technique alongside their studies.

  • Pastoral Support

Most students at a sixth form college are in late adolescence, a time when good pastoral support is particularly crucial. Many colleges provide this through a team of personal tutors (or similar) who mentor students, overseeing their progress both personally and academically. If possible, try to meet a member of that team to learn more about their approach and how this support is organised.

Some colleges offer additional resources, such as a college counsellor. If this level of support is important to you then it is worth investigating a college that will meet those needs rather than settling for somewhere whose approach to pastoral support is less comprehensive. There are an increasing number of sixth form colleges in the UK so it is likely that you will be able to find one that suits you.


Most students prefer the shortest possible commute to school and it is a good idea to perform a ‘test run’ when considering a college. Most sixth form colleges offer flexible timetabling options and do not require students to attend college for the full day (therefore sometimes avoiding rush hour), so institutions a little further from home become a more plausible option than they would have been previously.

Considering the surroundings of the college might also help in the decision-making process. An Art History student, for example, might be drawn to a college situated in close proximity to a gallery whereas a scientist might prefer to be near a university or museum. Such facilities will make extra-curricular involvement easier, motivating a student’s interest and enjoyment in a subject as well as proving beneficial for university applications.


A sixth form college will, of course, never be able to compete with the space and facilities of a boarding school based in the countryside but a good one will still provide everything a student needs to study effectively.

As part of the admissions process, students and their parents should be offered a tour of the building. Classrooms should be clean, tidy, well-lit and appropriate to group size. Most should have SMART Boards and other audio visual equipment to enhance learning. Students taking subjects requiring specialist equipment may request to see the relevant classroom. For example, an Art Studio will need plenty of natural light as well as being a welcoming and creative place. Laboratory work is essential for A level sciences so it is important to find out how the college accommodates this: many will have their own laboratories but if they do not, find out where the nearest laboratory is and how easily accessible that is for students.

As a college will usually not require students to remain in the building outside of lesson time, find out where students go when they are not in the classroom. Things to look out for are whether there is adequate study space for students in their free time and whether computers and Wi-Fi are readily available. Many students are also interested in the other communal spaces in a building: it is unfeasible to expect that everyone will be studying all the time, so find out if there is a Common Room for students to spend time in and whether there are any catering facilities on site.


A common misconception about sixth-form colleges is that they do not offer extra-curricular activities. This is not the case. It is true that the central city location of most sixth form colleges restricts the range of options available in comparison to a boarding school but there  will often still be a diverse range of activities on offer.. In general, the larger the college the greater the availability of extra-curricular options, particularly in the case of team sports. There are certainly many colleges at which these are available and many college teams play in local football or rugby leagues.

Other options that might be available include drama, music, language-learning, art, photography, journalism or the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, so do not expect that time at a sixth form college will only be spent studying. As part of their bespoke approach to education, sixth-form colleges will sometimes try to accommodate student requests regarding extra-curricular activities, so a student who is particularly interested in pursuing an unavailable option should check with the admissions team as to whether this is something they would be able to consider.

Open Days

If you are able to attend an Open Day at a college, this is a great research tool. The day will be entirely focussed on assisting prospective parents and students in learning more about the institution and as such it should be very productive. It is usually possible at an Open Day to meet a number of members of staff at a college, such as personal tutors or Heads of Department who might be unavailable on a normal working day, so taking this opportunity to get to know more of the people and having your questions answered by an expert can give you a good sense of whether or not a place is likely to be right for you. We have written a full article on How to make the most of school and college open days which you might find helpful if you would like to know more about this. 

As we mentioned, choosing a sixth-form college can be a very daunting task. A good Admissions team will be sympathetic of this and will always take the time to discuss the college and your requirements in more detail while you decide whether it is the right option for you. We wish you all the best in your search for a college.