As schools have returned from the summer, sixth form teams up and down the country have no sooner recovered from arguably their busiest couple of weeks of the academic calendar (with results days and enrolment) when term starts and they must produce the requisite energy to welcome their new cohort of Year 12 students. In many sixth forms, this means welcoming back existing students as well as getting to know those joining from other schools, which can be a challenging combination when it comes to establishing a culture.
This post aims to share some ideas which I hope will help to ensure a smooth start for both Year 12 students as well as for the staff teams leading them.
It all starts with ethos
I have written before about the importance of creating a discernible ethos which links to, but is distinct from, that of the school overall. In the sixth form I lead, this is our #RoleModels approach. Throughout the admissions process, you can (and should) communicate this message consistently, but in order for the start of Year 12 to go smoothly, students must see this ethos lived out in their first couple of weeks, otherwise they may feel that they were somehow ‘duped’ in the admissions process and the reality of their sixth form experience does not live up to the hype!
There are many ways to do this, from ensuring displays around school (and especially in the sixth form building) are reflective of the ethos and culture you wish to create, to introducing Student Leaders to your new students. Alongside this, you may wish to plan assemblies and/or activities in tutor time or PSHE that reinforce the message.
This year, we are asking our Year 12 students to consider their own role models and what their shared characteristics are. We will also be using Natasha Devon’s great activity on ‘curating your social media feed’, so we can try to combine the #RoleModels concept with some proactive strategies that might also help with our work on wellbeing and diversity. We will then apply this to the concept of ‘a role model sixth form student’ and (hopefully!) co-create the characteristics all students can aim to emulate. We intend to create displays around school collating students’ ideas and hope this will give our new students a sense of ownership over the concept and therefore, enhanced buy-in in terms of the culture we are seeking to establish.
Another way the #RoleModels ethos can be embedded is via our Year 13 students. We are ensuring we involve our Student Leadership Team and other Year 13 students in the planning of welcome events and activities for our Year 12s. This has a dual benefit: it gives the Year 13 students a sense of agency and pride in their roles and simultaneously embeds the message that our existing students are living out the #RoleModels vision.
This year, our new Head of Year 12 had the brilliant idea of hosting two events (a week apart on weeks two and three) to explicitly welcome our new cohort. The first will be for students joining us from other schools and the second will be for the whole of Year 12. Both events will be held in our theatre foyer over lunch, with refreshments provided, music playing and Year 13 students circulating tables with different activities, games or discussion points at each. We are also using the events as an opportunity to secure greater engagement with super-curricular activities from the outset, along with a focus on wellbeing and support. Staff are being invited to both events and we hope that they will help to further cement our ethos and culture. We have deliberately involved Year 13 students who were also new to the school in Year 12, so we have some insights from them over the kinds of things they wanted to know at this point last year.
We hope that these two events will create further ‘buy-in’ for the #RoleModels message and that Year 12 students will feel more of a sense of belonging and community than perhaps in previous years when we have not done this.
Effective administration and communication
Inevitably, there will be some student movement in school sixth forms at the start of term, as students enrol late after trying out other sixth forms/colleges, and it is therefore important that administration systems are efficient and all students receive the same information. This is particularly critical for external students, who will need setting up on IT systems, ParentPay etc and may need school maps and any welcome information sharing that they missed by joining late.
Communication is key throughout this process for all students. Ensure messaging is positive, clear and concise, and involve families in the plans you have to settle Year 12 students into life in the sixth form. It is also crucial that expectations are communicated in this period, both to students and their families, so that all parties are clear on the way your sixth form will operate. This also works to establish a professional and efficient tone with key stakeholders from the outset, and establishes key systems such as absence reporting and pastoral provision.
Use your social media channels to reinforce your desired culture and any key information and events for your new cohort. You can also celebrate students’ successes as soon as you know about them, so that even new Year 12 students feel like they are already achieving and recognised for this. I often find that we get more engagement if we post this information on Instagram and then follow up with more detail via email. Other school accounts can then re-post and share the information to reach more stakeholders. This is often an under-utilised aspect of communication in schools, but it is one that is really effective, and, crucially, is free!
For external students, it is imperative that school CTF files are requested from previous schools within fifteen days of enrolment, so it is essential that any admin support for your sixth form team is both aware of this and acts upon it to chase files from feeder schools. These files are fundamental to the successful transition of your external students and will contain essential safeguarding, SEND and other information which will help you to support your new students as effectively as possible. I am incredibly lucky to be so ably supported by a super-efficient data and admin assistant in our sixth form centre, whose experience and skillset is so very useful to both staff and students throughout this process. If you do not have your own admin support, speak to your senior leadership team about accessing admin support at this crucial time of setting up systems for the year ahead.
Consistency of communication is clearly key, but so many other aspects must also be consistent for Year 12 students to form a positive first impression of life in the sixth form. This will include messaging from teaching staff around independent study expectations, adherence to the school’s dress code (if applicable) and delivery of PSHE programmes. It is important that all students have a similar experience of the fundamentals of life in your sixth form. Consider all the variables – multiple teaching groups, different tutor groups, etc, and think about how you can try to quality-assure consistency across Year 12s’ experience of each. Whilst this is tricky - especially if your numbers are high - it is possible to reinforce messaging enough to minimise variance.
Consistency also applies to your enrolment procedures. If you are enrolling students late, you must ensure you stick to your policy and are consistent in your approach in this regard, too.
Any time of transition can be problematic, especially for young people in this age group. Therefore, it is essential that you communicate your support mechanisms and approaches to pastoral care and wellbeing. All our communications signpost students and families to our Wellbeing Google classroom, which is updated each #WellbeingWednesday, for example. Students are also told that their tutors are their first port of call in terms of support, reinforced by the support of their Head of Year and our Student Wellbeing Lead. We also signpost our weekly external counselling service within our Welcome Booklet (sent to Year 12 students a few days before the start of term), and tutors reiterate our wellbeing events and provision through our ‘Monday Messages’ in tutor time. Tutors are urged to be vigilant to any new students who are causing concern, who may be struggling to settle or make friends, so that our Head of Year can step in to ensure as few students as possible are struggling at the start of the year. Tutor groups were also designed to include a mixture of internal and external students, so that, again, there is consistency of approach for all.
I hope the examples above ignite ideas for other sixth form teams in how we might support our new students in the transition to the most exciting stage of their education to date. Ethos is absolutely paramount, and therefore all aspects of your ‘settling in’ approach should seek to reinforce this. Your new Year 12 students will feel a greater sense of belonging from the off, and we all know that happy students are more likely to be successful in the long run.
Wishing you all a wonderful start to the academic year. Aren’t we lucky to work with so many #RoleModels?!