Well, these provide a welcome chance to assess the post-16 options available to Oxford residents. Many parents assume their child will automatically stay at the same school, but this may not be possible or you may have positive reasons for looking elsewhere. In most cases, a new application has to be made for entry into the Sixth Form, and each school can set its own criteria for admission. Provision varies enormously. There are an increasing number of post-16 alternatives to school, which can focus on science and technology, business and engineering, or other types of vocational education and training, including apprenticeships. Here are some aspects worth considering as you visit institutions opening their doors between November and January. There is no one “Best School”: you need to identify the school which best suits your individual child. Please let us know if you have others you would like to add to the list.
Some schools set pretty stringent requirements in terms of GCSE points: a minimum number of points, a minimum points average, a minimum grade in the subject to be studied, or a combination of these. If your child may not meet these requirements, it is a good idea to explore alternatives.
Provision – Subjects Offered
Does the school/college offer the ideal combination of subjects for your child? Some schools restrict their provision to the relatively small number of A Level subjects commonly required for entrance to university courses. Some offer a dazzling array of other subjects and/or BTECs , but beware – some of those courses may not actually run if they are undersubscribed. Sometimes it is possible to access a subject elsewhere as an external student – or, if you are willing and able to pay, through external tutoring -but it is important to check that the school would co-operate with this arrangement.
Provision – Sixth Form Curriculum
Some schools require their students to follow a set pattern of additional activities beside their A Level work: for example, the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) is compulsory in some schools, available as an option in others. The Sixth Form curriculum might also include Duke of Edinburgh awards, compulsory ‘volunteering’ in school (in which case, consider whether they are being offered constructive activities or used as cheap labour or to tick a UCAS box!), or whatever else the school deems necessary. Some schools ask all students to choose four A Levels at the outset, enabling them to drop one later; some allow only three, unless GCSE grades are exceptionally good. It is sensible to check that your child will be happy with the regime.
Many people would put this at the top of the list. OFSTED Inspectors are highly experienced and knowledgeable and it is worth reading what they have to say in full. One very good Sixth Form in Oxfordshire is often overlooked because the school as a whole was rated “3” whereas the sections dealing specifically with the Sixth Form are full of praise. Also, check the date of the report – a lot can change in a short time with changes of leadership.
Again, as with OFSTED reports, it is important to look below the headlines. For instance, if the statistics for A*-B grades are inflated by a huge History class with an inspiring teacher, that won’t benefit your child if they will be in a small Further Maths class with an inadequate teacher. Ask for more details.
The quality of teaching is probably the single most important factor, but also the most difficult to judge, not least because different pupils benefit from different teaching styles. However, even on a brief visit, from displays on the walls and conversations with teachers, one can glean some evidence of three key ingredients: engagement, experience and enthusiasm. Do they go the extra mile – for instance organising trips, speakers, participation in Olympiads?
For financial and logistical reasons, some schools will offer a subject only if there at least a dozen takers; others somehow manage to run classes with as few as four or five. This extra attention suits some pupils and allows them to thrive. Small is not always beautiful, however: some young people can feel uncomfortably exposed in a small class, spending too much time with the same few people can become oppressive, and some subjects benefit from larger numbers with diverse opinions for discussion and debate.
Sixth Form Size
At least one Oxfordshire school has fewer than 60 in a year, another boasts 250. Some young people will enjoy life in a small, close-knit community; others will relish the diversity of friendship groups offered by larger numbers.
Some schools strictly enforce attendance, insisting pupils remain securely on site throughout the school day; others treat them as responsible young adults, allowing them to sign in and out if they have a free period. Some parents prefer one, some the other.
Facilities – Teaching and Studying
Obviously, well-equipped laboratories, ample up to date and well-maintained computer equipment and helpful support staff are all an advantage. Good, well-stocked library facilities are particularly important for sixth form study. Are there sufficient quiet work spaces, in the library or elsewhere?
Facilities – Sixth Form Area
Most schools have a dedicated “home” area for the Sixth Form. This is particularly important where the attendance policy requires students to remain on site all day, as they need somewhere in the school not only to study silently, but also to eat, drink, talk, make and develop friendships, as well as do group work and discussions. Some schools provide kitchens with kettles, toasters, microwave ovens and fridges (one even has a dishwasher), others have a café, some just a hot drinks machine. And don’t forget to look at the toilets: as with restaurants, their condition says a lot about the establishment and a quick glance tells you much about how much the school respect the students and vice versa.
A comfortable Sixth Form area promotes social opportunities – this is particularly important if your child is starting a new school and wishes to make friends more widely, not just within their subjects. Are there other signs of a happy social life in the school? For instance, are there Sixth Form fundraising programmes or other collaborative efforts? Does the school do anything to encourage this?
The transition from GCSE to A Level study is a tough one. A pupil who has waltzed through GCSEs with A and A* grades can be unprepared for more challenging work which requires far more independent study and self-discipline. In addition, some schools monitor students far more tightly in Sixth Form than in Key Stages 3 and 4, with regular, frequent close inspections of folders and workbooks. Students can be overwhelmed by all this, when added to the other stresses of being a teenager in the 21st century, and mental health problems are increasing in this age group, including depression and self-harm. What does the school offer (in addition to the invaluable peer support available from friends in the Sixth Form area) to identify and help with these and other problems? Do pupils have close relationships with a pastoral tutor? Is there a school counsellor available, and how easy is it to get an appointment?
Are these offered or supported? Are there opportunities for music, drama or other cultural activities? Or are students expected to engage in these only outside of school? Are sports or other physical activities available for sixth-formers in school? Are there clubs and societies for them? Do you see evidence of regular performances, sports fixtures, participation in competitions?
High retention rates can give an indication of the commitment of the school to the pupils’ success, or the appropriateness of the guidance given to pupils at the outset. Of the students who start Year 12, how many complete their studies in Year 13?
Some schools are positioning themselves as university preparation centres, with selective entry requirements and curricula specifically designed to meet criteria for university entrance criteria. Other schools see their goal as to enable young people in their locality to achieve the best educational outcomes possible, whatever they may be. Some institutions have been established specifically to strengthen the local workforce in terms of immediate employability and bolster local business. Which is most appropriate for your child?
UCAS Preparation and Support
What support does the school offer? Is there a programme designed to help students through the university application process, from selecting appropriate courses at appropriate higher education institutions, through to writing a convincing personal statement? Does anyone arrange university interview practice sessions?
What kind of guidance is available? Is guidance offered proactively or only in response to requests? Is there a programme for developing awareness of alternative careers, eg regular speakers from different industries and sectors? Is there a programme designed to assist students with letter-writing, completing application forms, and developing interview skills?
For primary and secondary schooling, most parents prioritise location, for practical purposes. By the age of 16, however, most young people are capable of travelling independently by bus, bike or moped, and distance may no longer be such a key factor. Looking slightly further afield may have benefits which outweigh the extra burden of travel.
Consider the psychological repercussions of staying put versus moving to a new place. Sometimes a clean start can be helpful, sometimes intimidating. How does the school or college help new students to integrate? It may be easier to move to a sixth form college where everyone is new and in the same boat, than to move to a school with established social grouping. That said, there is often significant change in friendship groups in the sixth form anyway, as timetabling and subject specialism bring different sets of young people together. Remember also that today’s teenagers often rely heavily on social media to maintain their relationships.
Last, but not least, don’t forget the other people who can give you expert advice about the school: parents of current students. Don’t miss any networking opportunities, you never know what you may find out!
Special thanks goes to Heather Kay for suggesting and writing this guide.Dates for upcoming events at local schools and colleges are as follows:
Sixth Form Events
These are seasonal events usually running between September and January so they may not appear out of season. Want to add your Sixth Form open day? Get in touch!
Reviews of Sixth Form evenings 2017-2018
Subjects offered: Unless otherwise stated, it is assumed that all sixth forms offer the basic range of courses known as “facilitating” subjects for university entrance. This means the subjects which are the basic building blocks often required for entrance to a range of different courses. For instance, Maths is a facilitating subject: on the whole, A Level Maths is required for degrees in Economics or Psychology, for example, whereas A Levels in Economics and Psychology are not. The facilitating subjects assumed in these reviews are Biology, Chemistry, English Literature, French, History, Geography, Maths & Further Maths, Physics.
Entry requirements: In addition to their general entry requirements, sixth forms will generally set a subject-specific requirement. The entry grade required is higher for A Levels than BTECs and higher for Maths and Science subjects than for others.
Deadline for applications: It is still possible to apply to sixth forms after the stated deadline has passed but it is advisable to apply in time, so that your particular combination of subjects can be taken into consideration if the school is using application data to set its option blocks for the timetable. This is particularly important if you are applying for a less popular subject: your application may influence whether the subject is even offered, or whether you can take it in combination with your other choices. On-time applicants will normally take priority over late applicants if, for example, places are limited due to lack of lab bench space or other facilities. It is possible to apply to more than one institution (and this may be prudent if you are worried you might not achieve the grades for one, or that another might not actually run your subject).
EPQ: This stands for Extended Project Qualification and is now either offered or obligatory at most schools. It is worth half an A Level in terms of UCAS points. Pupils have to complete and write up a project of their own choosing. This can be anything under the sun. Most simply research a question and write an extended essay with an impressive bibliography; but it is quite acceptable to make a film, produce an artefact, build a model, write a computer program etc, so long as the student thoroughly documents and writes up the process. This is regarded as a valuable introduction to independent study as a preparation for university.
Missed the Open Evening?: If you missed the big event, do contact the school and ask to arrange a tour at an alternative time. Most will be happy to oblige.
Wheatley Park School
Sixth Form Open Evening
Thursday 9th November 2017
No of subjects offered: 27, including Applied Sciences BTEC, Art & Design (Fine Art) Business, Computer Science, Design (Textile Art), Drama & Theatre Studies, Economics, English Language & Literature, Health & Social Care BTEC, Media Studies, Music, Photography, Physical Education, Politics, Psychology, Sociology, Spanish
Minimum entry requirements: 8 GCSEs (or equivalent), with at least grade 4 in five subjects including English and Maths
Sixth form size: 150
Class sizes: Average is low teens but small classes still run (eg 2-3 students in Spanish, Music)
Deadline for applications: 7th January 2018
Ethos: At the Open Evening, the Principal used three words to describe Wheatley Park: learning, caring, everyone. Their aim is to be as inclusive as possible to enable everyone to achieve their best. The school goes to extra lengths to accommodate a very wide range of courses relative to its size, to ensure that there is something for everyone, even when numbers are small. It describes itself as a sixth form with a “growth mindset”. The entry requirements are low but the school works hard to ensure its students make good progress from whatever their starting point. The Head of Sixth Form, gave an intelligent, clear, concise synopsis, contrasting the advantages of a strong emphasis on personal pastoral care and guidance compared to a selective statistics-driven school. Enrichment opportunities on offer include Duke of Edinburgh, EPQ, Young Enterprise or Arts Award.
Distinctive Features: Wheatley Park has embraced technology (every pupil from Year 7 up has a Chromebook) and it is a Google Reference School. A highlight of the school year is its annual charity Fashion Show.
Facilities: Strangely, the Sixth Form Centre was closed on the Open Evening. It has its own canteen, and is used as a social area only during break and lunch times, otherwise it is used as a Sixth Form study area (all students are required to remain on site throughout the school day). Wheatley Park hosts a large local Sports Centre.
Bicester Technology Studio
Tuesday 14th November 2017
Tel: 01869 203012
No of subjects offered: 11, including Business Studies, Computing, Engineering BTEC, Product Design (NB This studio school follows a restricted specialist science, engineering and business curriculum and does not teach all the “facilitating subjects” for university entrance.)
Minimum entry requirements: Not specified
Sixth form size: 47 (capacity: 180)
Class size: Small - as low as 1 in the Sixth Form.
Deadline for applications: none specified
Ethos: Bicester Technology Studio is our nearest Studio School, including Oxford postcodes in its catchment area. Studio schools are a recent initiative to provide education and training specifically related to local business. The Bicester school opened in September 2016. It provides “Employer-focused education” and delivers “work-ready” students. It provides an environment more like a workplace than a school and summarises its requirements of students as the 5 Ps: be punctual, presentable, polite, prepared and positive. At the Open Evening, we were shown round by plenty of polite, presentable and positive Year 10s and 11s but only one sixth form volunteer. (There are currently only 12 pupils in Year 12 but more are expected next year as the larger GCSE year moves up.) In his speech, the Principal said the lack of features such as foreign languages and drama was outweighed by the advantages of regular meaningful work experience. Take-up had been disappointing for a school with a Business specialism; the other two Bicester schools also offered Business Studies, so BTS was considering specialising its offer to retail or entrepreneurship. The school currently has connections with the retail, construction and automotive industries.
Distinctive Features: The school day is long, similar to a working day, with four 105-minute lessons a day, spread over four days. The fifth day (Wednesday) is for Work Placement. The philosophy of the Studio Schools Trust is that work placements are paid but few if any are in Bicester at present. The students do all their A Level/BTEC work at school and stay at school all day, taking no work home, unless they have an “Elective” period undertaking their own project independently.
Facilities: The school has a table tennis room and field and use of the Bicester Sports Centre facilities just opposite. There is a canteen serving pizzas and burgers. The Product Design/Engineering room has 3-D printers and a large laser cutter.
City of Oxford College
Wednesday 15th November 2017
No of subjects offered: 18, including Business Studies, Government & Politics, Law, Media, Sociology, Philosophy & Religious Studies, Psychology (NB Choices are restricted. Students must choose one of four “Pathways” – Business, Communication, Science or Social Sciences – and then select three of the 7-9 subjects offered in that pathway.)
Vocational options offered: Apprenticeships; Art & Design; Business & Accounting; Construction; Early Years; Engineering & Motor Sport; Furniture; Hair & Beauty; Health & Social Care; Hospitality & Catering; IT & Computing; Media & Gaming; Motor Vehicle & Cycle Maintenance; Performing Arts (Music, Dance, Acting); Protective Services; Sports, Exercise Science & Fitness; Tourism
Minimum entry requirements: Varies
Sixth form size: not applicable
Deadline for applications: None; places are first come, first served for programmes with limited capacity. There is no specified minimum or maximum for the A Level classes and I was told that none of these has yet been cancelled due to low numbers.
Ethos: The City of Oxford College is one of several run by the Activate Learning group, which produces one guide to cover institutions in Aylesbury, Banbury, Bicester and Reading, so read it carefully: some of the options offered may not be available in Oxford. The main emphasis is on vocational education and training with a range of “pathways”, BTECs, Diplomas and apprenticeships. The A Level Pathways may appeal to those who do not relish the constraints of school and would rather come and go as they wish: attendance is registered for instruction time only.
Distinctive Features: The City of Oxford College has some well known areas of excellence, such as the Rycotewood Furniture Centre.
Facilities: Each Faculty has its own rest and study areas, and facilities appropriate to the nature of its offering.
Thursday 16th November 2017
No of subjects offered: 30, including Applied Science, Art, Classical Civilisation, Computing, Economics, Health & Social Care BTEC, ICT BTEC, Latin, Music A Level and BTEC, Music Technology NCFE, Performing Arts for Drama and for Musical Theatre BTECs, Philosophy & Ethics, Photography, Product Design, Spanish, Sociology, Sport BTEC, Textiles
Minimum entry requirements: 5 x Grade 4 GCSE including English and Maths; additional requirements for individual subject choices
Sixth form size: 250-300
Deadline for applications: 15th December 2017
Ethos: The focus of Cheney School’s Sixth Form is on preparation for university entrance. Roughly half its Year 11 pupils continue into Year 12, the remainder heading largely to college or to other sixth forms. Last year’s statistics show 71% of Year 13 Leavers going to university and 21% to a “gap year”. The curriculum is designed to produce a good personal statement for UCAS, with compulsory EPQ skills lessons in Year 12 (though taking the qualification is optional) and students are required to undertake either the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award or Community Volunteering. Presentations at the Open Evening were given by five sixth formers who all spoke confidently to a large audience without notes or microphone.
Distinctive Features: Cheney School hosts the East Oxford Community Classics Centre, which instigates extra-curricular activities and visiting speakers as well as providing teaching. The school prides itself on its Debating team and has achieved notable success in national competitions.
Facilities: The volunteer-staffed canteen in the Sixth Form area has recently been re-opened; there are partitioned silent study cubicles and an area for group work. The school is located beside Oxford Brookes University and maintains active links with its neighbour.
Gosford Hill School
Wednesday 22nd November 2017
No of subjects offered: 21, including Art & Design, Business, Computing (Tech IT), Computer Science, Drama & Theatre Studies, English Language & Literature, German, Health & Social Care, Music, Physical Education, Psychology, Sociology
Minimum entry requirements: An average score of 4.5 points on best 8 GCSE grades, with at least Grade 4 in English and Maths.
Sixth form size: 121
Class sizes: 5-15.
Deadline for applications: 15th December 2017
Ethos: Gosford Hill believes school is not all about exam results: it aims to provide its students with skills for life after school, so they leave as well-rounded individuals, and responsible and successful members of society. In addition to academic study, all students choose one form of weekly “enrichment” activity, which could be Young Enterprise, Duke of Edinburgh award, an EPQ or “Core” (sports activities for fitness and health). All students undertake at least an hour of community service a week. Students are initially required to stay on site throughout the school day, but those who show they can manage their work can win privileges, such as permission to study at home in study periods.
Distinctive Features:The Sixth Formers who gave presentations illustrated the mutual support and encouragement and community spirit of the school with real examples. Sixth Formers sing in a choir with teaching staff, compete against them in dodgeball, repaint rooms in the school themselves, and organise their own yearbooks and events. All the stalls in the Subject fair were manned by enthusiastic sixth formers as well as teachers.
Facilities: The Sixth Form has its own kitchen, with kettles, toasters, microwave oven and a dishwasher, and a large Sixth Form area. There are seven choices of study area, some for private silent study, some with computing facilities, some for collaborative group work. Gosford Hill has excellent sports facilities, including the leisure centre with indoor swimming pool on its site.
Note: Although this school is rated “3” by OFSTED, reading of the OFSTED report shows criticisms levelled at the earlier years, whereas the OFSTED inspectors praised many aspects of the school’s Sixth Form provision, not least the teaching.
UTC Oxfordshire (Didcot)
Wednesday 29th November 2017
Tel: 01235 391587
No of subjects offered: 10, including Computer Science, Product Design, Engineering BTEC, Business BTEC (NB Not all “facilitating” subjects are offered - see details below.)
Minimum entry requirements: 5 GCSEs at Grade 6 for STEM, 5 at Grade 5 for the Technical Pathway.
Sixth form size: 100 (and growing)
Class sizes: Average 12, lowest 2, highest 20
Deadline for applications: 31st December 2017
Ethos: This is the University Technical College closest to Oxford (there is another, specialising in Computing & IT and Construction in Aylesbury); this one specialises in Science and Engineering. UTCs combine practical, technical and academic teaching in a setting which is more like a workplace than a school, with longer days (8.30am to 4pm or 5pm); all work is completed during the day, and genuinely useful collaborative projects are undertaken with local businesses and research groups.
Distinctive Features: This UTC was opened in September 2015 and has already established itself as a successful institution with excellent results: destinations of its first cohort were 39% university, 46% apprenticeships or degree apprenticeships and 15% employment or other study. Degree apprenticeships offer a way of securing a university degree qualification but without the university experience or its cost. The UTC at Didcot offers A Levels only in Science subjects. Students follow one of two “Pathways”: STEM (A Levels in 3, 4 or even 5 of Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Computer Science, Product Design) or Technical (an Engineering BTEC Diploma or Extended Diploma together with Maths A Level or Core Maths). In either case, they also participate in employer-led projects, undertake at least two weeks of work experience, an EPQ and Duke of York awards. Next year, UTC will offer a third stream combining Business with one or both of these. The UTC Open Evening helpfully put subject choices in context by including a Careers fair.
Facilities: The UTC is extremely well furnished with shiny new tools and equipment, such as mini-furnace, lathes, forge, CAD-CAM, 3D printers, laser cutters etc.
Oxford Spires Academy
Thursday 7th December 2017
No of subjects offered: 23-4, including Art, Business Studies, Drama & Theatre Studies, Economics, English Language, Government & Politics, Media Studies, Philosophy & Ethics, Physical Education, Product Design, Psychology, Sociology, Spanish, Sport (and German in Year 13 only)
Minimum entry requirements: Normally 5 GCSEs at Grade 5 but with a 6 in the subject chosen for A Level/BTEC Level 3. Those with lower grades can still enter Year 12 to undertake Level 2 BTEC in Health & Social Care or Travel & Tourism and/or to resit English and/or Maths GCSE alongside A Level/BTEC study.
Sixth form size: 160
Class sizes: 5-18
Deadline for applications: Start of term, January 2018
Ethos: The new Head stressed the value placed on sixth formers as role models, mentors and coaches for younger students, and the breadth of the school’s offer which, like the active House system, encourages maximal participation and involvement in this diverse, multicultural school. The Head Girl summed up the ethos as “supportive”, praising the time and support given by teachers both in and outside lessons. The Head of Sixth Form encourages both extracurricular activities (sport, music, drama and the public speaking and creative writing in which the school has enjoyed notable successes) and supercurricular opportunities to extend knowledge through lectures, work experience and MOOCs. Students are required to stay at school all day at the beginning of Year 12 while they learn to study independently; home study is later agreed for individuals showing high levels of effort and achievement.
Distinctive Features: Spires encourages sixth formers to see themselves as responsible adults; for instance, they share the staff café with their teachers (this opens at noon so they can eat early if they have lunchtime activities). Spires offers students the Morrisby profile testing so popular in private schools, which gives lifelong personal guidance in identifying strengths, qualities, priorities, possible career paths, and suitable subjects and courses. This is free to students with a family income of up to £26k, or £99 for others.
Facilities: The Sixth Form has a large study area with computers, and a smaller meeting room for group work, both adjoining a large social area (which they also use for study), currently with a small kitchen area with kettle and microwave; and they are raising funds themselves for further appliances. They also share the staff café (see above).