Why Choose An Independent Sixth Form College?

For independent sixth form colleges, formerly known as “crammers”, times have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. At a rough estimate, there are currently over 100 such colleges in the UK, located nationwide from Exeter to Edinburgh, and significantly the majority of the A-level courses that they run nowadays are of the traditional two-year variety, rather than the shortened retake courses for which they were renowned. Most still run resit and revision courses, but this sector is now firmly established as a provider of the standard post-GCSE two-year programme.

Chris Kraft, Principal of Duff Miller College, in Kensington, explains why the sixth form colleges are no longer regarded as the poor relation of the independent sector: “The mindset of students who come to see us, and of their parents, has completely changed from a generation ago. They are making a pro-active choice to seek alternatives to the traditional school sixth form. The die is not cast for a 16-year-old to stay where he or she has been since 11 or 13, and many parents are now seeking a bespoke solution to the problem of ensuring entry into high-demand courses such as medicine and law at top universities. They are increasingly unconvinced that staying put is the best option.”

So, given the growing popularity of private sixth-form colleges, what are the attractions?

Firstly, the more adult learning environment they provide, compared to more traditional schools, resonates with many young people and has been a key driver behind the proliferation of the sector. This environment, the wider variety and range of subjects on offer (over 40, in some cases) and the fact that there are fewer restrictions on subject combinations, all provide an important stepping stone to the less structured world of university education. Mike Kirby, who founded Ashbourne Independent Sixth Form College in the 1970s, stresses: “Private sixth forms offer the opportunity for change, growth and development and are rightly called half-way houses to university. There is an excellent balance between freedom and discipline: students have much more responsibility to manage their academic and social lives, but are far from the often solitary existence they will experience at university. At the same time colleges are slightly obsessed with monitoring attendance, work submission and exam preparation.”

Secondly, the best colleges have experienced teachers who are A-level subject specialists. They will be familiar with all the requirements of the various examination boards and are often examiners for the syllabuses they teach.  Kraft feels that Michael Gove’s changes to the GCSE and A-level specifications, teaching for which starts in September 2015, will hold no fears for educators in this sector, commenting: “In my experience they take extreme pride in knowing all the quirks of exam syllabuses inside out.” Steve Boyes, Principal of MPW London, adds: “Sixth form college teachers have developed special expertise because they cater only for Key Stage 5 and can focus on delivering A-level specifications in innovative and creative ways, which translates into high-level academic outcomes.” A recent survey by the Council for Independent Education (CIFE), the national association that represents the majority of the best private colleges. showed that 47% of students in CIFE colleges went to Russell Group universities last autumn.

Kraft gives two further reasons why these sixth form colleges are becoming more popular. “A-level students increasingly want to be treated as individual customers. They like the personal touch, the on-going monitoring process of their performance, and they appreciate their teachers showing genuine interest and concern about their academic progress. Secondly, students say that they have had enough of the structured environment of school where they are obliged to do extra-curricular activities, attend assemblies, chapel and so on. They want, for example, to do their homework and revision when they want to do it, not when the school dictates. In summary, they want education on their own terms.”

Interestingly, Kirby has found that generally private sixth form colleges have been more popular with girls than with boys: “It has long been a tradition for girls to leave their schools after GCSE, often citing boredom as the main reason, and they then headed for a prestigious boys’ school for A-levels. Now they come to us for much the same reasons. These days, for boys too, colleges are very attractive for those who are seeking a co-educational environment without the rigidity and overweening structure of a private school.”

Very few students who register with private colleges today have been excluded from their previous school, dispelling an old myth. On the other hand, generally these colleges are not selective. They also engage exclusively with A-levels set by traditional exam boards, though many offer IGCSEs which demand less coursework. One college has recently begun offering the more vocational BTECs in areas such as media, music and business. Finally, fees are generally very high but most offer generous scholarships and bursaries.

For more information on specific colleges and the sector in general, go to www.cife.org.uk, the website of the Council for Independent Education (CIFE).

CIFE Representative, James Wardrobe


Where to look next:

  • To find out more about our A Level and GCSE courses, click here
  • We have possibly the best boarding in the UK – have a look at boarding at CCSS
  • Our student profiles give you an insight into what life is like for students at CCSS
  • If you’re interested in seeing which universities our students go to, click here.

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