This is my first ever blog. I have felt, for a while now, compelled to write my musings around my educational passion: 16-19 education. In our current knowledge and research-rich education sector, there appears to be very little literature specifically focusing on 16-19 leadership. In what I hope will become a series of blogs, I want to start by explaining why I am such an advocate for the sixth form phase; the most exciting phase of secondary education. I hope that, in doing so, I might ignite something in middle leaders that allows them to consider a move to sixth form leadership. These thoughts are entirely my own and I do not profess to be an expert; I merely want to open up a conversation about sixth form leadership so that those wishing to become involved in it can do so ‘with their eyes open’. The step up to sixth form leadership can be taken from any middle leadership position: whether department, faculty or pastoral leadership is your experience, all of it will serve you well in the multi-faceted field of sixth form leadership.
I consider myself extremely privileged to have worked for over fifteen years in secondary schools with sixth forms attracting significant student numbers. This has given me the career-long benefit of teaching A Level (and previously IB) History which has always been the highlight of my timetable. The chance to share subject knowledge with students who have chosen your subject as one of their three or four courses allows for magic moments in lessons that teachers don’t often get at Key Stages 3 or 4. This love for the A level classroom fuelled my ambition to become a sixth form leader and I am very lucky to have realised this aim in recent years.
Having led a very successful History department and Humanities faculty before taking on an Extended Senior Leadership role within the sixth form at my previous school, moving to my most recent post as Director of Sixth Form in September 2020 seemed like an exciting and logical next step. My current role happily sits within my school's excellent Senior Leadership Team, but I found myself both making the leap to Senior Leadership and moving schools in arguably the most challenging educational landscape of my career. In addition to this huge change, I was then tasked with communicating my philosophy on 16-19 education to a theatre full of unfamiliar staff on my first day. Nervous doesn’t quite cover it! Whilst the sight of around 100 unfamiliar faces all sat at a two-metre distance in our school theatre was daunting in the extreme, as I stood on the stage I was somehow reassured by the confidence I had in the content I knew I was about to deliver. My brief was to outline my approach and vision for the sixth form at my school: a sixth form already attracting 300+ students, with results which, whilst not outstanding, were far from inadequate. The focus was clear for me - I had to communicate what I knew to be true of really strong sixth form education: sixth form students are role models.
I would like to explain why I know this to be true as a hallmark of successful 16-19 education and why this makes the sixth form phase so exciting to lead.
1. Sixth form students inspire their younger peers
This seems an obvious point: as the eldest students in a school community, it stands to reason that sixth form students should act as role models to their younger peers. In my experience though, this is not emphasised enough. I believe we should over-communicate to our sixth form students that they are uniquely placed in the school community to exemplify behaviours and habits that younger students might aspire to emulate. They should see this both as a responsibility and a privilege. We, as leaders, must create opportunities for them to interact with their younger peers, and in doing so, build both their own confidence and self-esteem, as well as a sense of aspiration in our younger students.
2. Sixth form students inspire staff
Anyone who has taught Key Stage 5 students knows the joy of teaching a really good sixth form group. Students in this age bracket demand both a level of subject expertise and a classroom dynamic which mean sixth form teachers must routinely draw upon their very best practice if they are to maintain engagement and to ensure academic potential is realised. Put simply: good sixth form groups make teachers better.
3. Sixth form students become adults during this phase
This is another privilege of teaching and leading within the sixth form – we see our students grow up before our very eyes. This increased maturity is incremental throughout Years 12 and 13 and is founded upon a range of factors, often secured beyond the classroom: friendship and relationship issues, mental health and wellbeing challenges and the struggle to become more secure in a sense of self and to own a voice within the world. To be even a witness to this process is privilege enough, but to have a hand in guiding, advising, supporting and nurturing our students to become well-rounded young adults is something I would argue is a unique perk of sixth form leadership.
4. Sixth form students make choices that will affect their futures
It’s not long after the transition from Key Stage 4 that Year 12 students find themselves being inundated with a raft of information about post-18 choices. In an educational landscape that is ever-changing, and now, with the added injection of remote resources being shared so frequently due to the pandemic, our students are faced with what could be deemed an overwhelming level of choice. That year upon year they are able to navigate this plethora of choices and arrive at decisions about what they’d like to do when they leave school is a feat that shouldn’t be underestimated. If we consider that as adults we are rarely, if ever, faced with such an array of choice in order to make a decision, to call sixth form students role models for doing just this at age 17 seems something of an understatement.
5. Sixth form students are passionate in their beliefs
Any good A Level classroom discussion will demonstrate that students aged 16-19 are passionate in their views if they are given the circumstances and environment in which to share them freely. We only have to look to the events of the last year to see this exemplified on a more macro level. Last summer’s exams fiasco, the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change protests, the recent Ofqual/DfE consultation… whose combined voice chimed the loudest in all cases? The passion young people demonstrate for what they believe in makes them, whilst sometimes challenging to lead, more often inspiring people to be around; people who force us as adults to crystallise our own views on the issues they find most engaging and in so doing, make us better at leading them.