Sixth Form Growth: Examples of Successful Recruitment and Retention Strategies
Updated: Mar 13
Nineteen months ago, I took on my current role as Director of Sixth Form, with one of my key priorities being to improve recruitment and retention. In a large school with over 1400 students in Years 7-11, the numbers at Key Stage 5 seemed low at under 300. I have therefore sought to employ strategies to increase our numbers from the outset and have been successful over the last two academic years, with applications to our sixth form this year equating to double what they were in 2020.
In a previous blog post, I outlined some thoughts on why recruitment and retention are such important aspects of the many facets of sixth form leadership. I recognise that, for many schools, growth of this phase is neither desired nor necessarily practical; perhaps the site may not allow for additional numbers or staffing a broader curriculum at Key Stage 5 is not currently possible. However, for many schools, growth of their sixth forms can be an attractive prospect indeed. This might be for pragmatic reasons, such as a desire to retain high achieving students in order to improve outcomes, or even to increase revenue, but there is, for me, a much more important reason. Increasing the Key Stage 5 cohort has many benefits for the students themselves. It allows for greater diversity (and the many benefits this brings both within and beyond the taught curriculum), helps to support a wide curriculum offer, allows for improvements to the sixth form environment and creates a more realistic ‘bridge’ between school and university life.
So, for those schools in a position to grow their sixth forms, this post attempts to give some concrete examples of how schools might go about increasing numbers.
It all starts with ethos
I strongly believe that, in order to grow, a sixth form must have a clear and recognisable ethos. From day one in my current post, I have sought to embed the message that I believe sixth form students to be role models; both to their fellow students, but also to staff and other school stakeholders. I introduced this concept (explained fully in this blog post) to staff in our September training day presentation on my vision for improving and growing our sixth form and have not deviated from this message since, in all communications to students, parents, staff and governors. Our #RoleModels message is clear to see in our sixth form building, around school on our TV screens (with things like our #RoleModels of the Term nominees), on our social media, our website and in our correspondence with parents.
Having a ‘tagline’ or ‘hashtag’ allows for effective overcommunication; an essential when looking to increase numbers. Ensuring this message complements the whole school ethos is clearly crucial, but I think it is important for the sixth form to have its own ethos in addition. After all, sixth forms recruit both from within and from external schools. This means that all potential applicants get a consistent and, crucially, new message; whether they might be new to the school or not. This ethos can then inform all other aspects of your growth strategy. After all, if you cannot concisely articulate what it means to be a sixth former at your school, how can you expect 16 year-olds to know and therefore want to apply?
Efficiency – Online Admissions
One essential for ensuring numbers move in an upwards trajectory is the admissions process itself. This needs to be smooth for both applicants and for sixth form staff and therefore, an online admissions system has to be the way forwards. Many schools use their own online forms through Microsoft or Google Forms, which can be very effective. We decided to purchase an online admissions package, so we had access to the full functionality of communicating in a targeted way with applicants throughout the cycle, easily importing and exporting data to our MIS system, being able to filter data in multiple ways (e.g. on interest in subjects/courses) as well as an easy online enrolment system. Having this in place, whilst incredibly fiddly to set up initially, was definitely worth the effort. Being able to track admissions in real time also means you can try out new strategies at different stages in your admissions cycle, and, crucially, watch the numbers to see if they work!
Retaining students from Year 11
Each school will vary when it comes to numbers of students making the decision to stay or go elsewhere for sixth form study. Before embarking on any drive to increase retention, it is important to ascertain why students are choosing to go elsewhere and if there is any particular group of students making this choice. If you are able to identify this, you may be able to target particular groups in terms of increasing their awareness of what your sixth form might offer them, and therefore, encourage more to stay. It is also important to consider that your sixth form offer is unlikely to be suited to your entire Year 11 cohort, and recognising this in communications with Year 11 is therefore wise; students appreciate honesty during such a time of potential change.
In many schools there will be a separate sixth form building, which students in Years 7 to 11 never set foot in (you will have seen lower school students ‘hovering’ outside waiting to speak to staff no doubt!). This can create a detachment between the sixth form and the main school. In order to mitigate this effect, it is useful to invite students into the sixth form building as part of the admissions process (if not before). This year, we held tutor group talks in one of our main study spaces during morning registration in which all key sixth form team staff spoke about aspects of our provision and student leaders took small groups around the building for a tour. We are also inviting Year 11 students into the building for Q&A sessions with our current Year 13 student leaders to break down this barrier further ahead of induction in the summer term when all applicants will follow a timetable of taster lessons and other sessions.
After our Year 11 Pre-Public Exams, all students received their results envelope which was immediately followed by a one-to-one conversation with a senior member of staff. After reflecting on their results and revision strategies, discussions moved to post-16 choices and all students were given a (business card-sized) card reminding them of the key stages in the admissions process, along with a QR code taking them directly to the sixth form area of our website. This helped to keep the admissions process on our students’ ‘radar’.
For really effective retention long term though, the process should start before Year 11. We have, for example, included post-16 advice within our Year 9 GCSE Options process for both students and parents. We have also increased sixth form involvement with lower school students via a range of leadership opportunities and have been more ‘present’ in main school assemblies, with one specifically on the #RoleModels ethos in the summer of Year 10. We also make use of displays and TV screens around the school site to showcase sixth form events and successes.
Recruiting students from other schools
There are a number of strategies I’ve seen schools using to recruit external students into their sixth forms, from advertising on roundabouts and buses, to local newspapers and radio. All of these methods are costly and tricky to assess in terms of impact. Whilst they may prove useful for many schools, we have not used any of these methods in the last two admissions cycles.
We have, of course, held an Open Evening each year, as most schools do. Ours has been online for the last two years, with a live webinar and detailed course videos led by subject leaders and sixth form subject officers available on our website. The website is clearly also a key source of information for potential external applicants so it is important to consider the information shared and how this helps to support the ethos you have created. It is also essential to have detailed admissions information available which is kept current at all times throughout the cycle.
Our main method of recruiting externally has been through the regular use of social media. We have sixth form accounts on Twitter and Instagram, as well as whole school accounts on both of these platforms as well as Facebook, along with some department accounts too. I want to make it clear that our social media accounts do not exist for the purpose of recruitment, but they are certainly used as part of the process. We post very regularly about opportunities for our students along with celebrating their many and varied successes (both within and beyond school) and therefore are able to embed the #RoleModels ethos further. As part of our regular posting, within the application window, we post admissions information and countdowns to key dates in the process. We also run site tours for external students and advertise Eventbrite tickets for these via our social media accounts as well as our website.
The weaving of admissions information in between our regular celebratory or information posts for current students seems to have worked well over the last two cycles and has the added bonus of costing nothing! There is also the option of paying for ‘promoted posts’ which reach more people if you are looking to increase numbers significantly. Clearly, this also works to embed key messaging for internal students too – in fact, our sixth form accounts are followed by many younger students as well as those in Year 11, and their parents. Having multiple accounts across school means that other staff can re-post key information too, reaching more people in the process.
Throughout the admissions process, we seek to ‘keep in touch’ with applicants in a number of ways. This could be through mailing hand-signed postcards thanking students for their applications, emailing conditional offer letters, inviting applicants to school events, sending targeted communications to relevant groups (such as SEND information, bursary information, subject information for subjects that have been undersubscribed previously etc) and gradually sending out staged communications around the induction process. This allows applicants to feel that we value their applications and hopefully therefore encourages them to enrol following GCSE results.
Induction and Enrolment
The final stages of the admissions process are key. The induction process should endeavour to allow students to not only get a feel for the subjects they plan to study through taster lessons, but should also mean applicants leave having a sense of what it feels like to be a sixth form student at your school. It is wise to consider the sessions you run beyond taster lessons just as carefully and to involve current Year 12 students in the process as much as possible. Having some kind of ‘social’ event during the day(s) is also wise, to create a sense of community. We have not been able to do this for the last two years with induction happening remotely so I cannot wait to welcome our applicants in person this year!
Finally, to ensure as many applicants as possible become students within the sixth form, an efficient enrolment process is essential. Last year was our first online enrolment process which went incredibly smoothly. Ahead of GCSE results day, we made sure to communicate clearly how the process would work and were therefore able to deal with most queries before the day itself. On results day, we had key sixth form staff available to talk to any students unsure about next steps. The admissions software package we use allows for very easy allocation of students to classes and automatically balances out group sizes within timetable option blocks. We were therefore able to complete the process swiftly, including applying oversubscription criteria for some courses. Once complete, we can then upload the class lists directly into our MIS system and so the process saves huge amounts of staff time too. Students are emailed using the online system, confirming their final course allocation. Remembering that students are keen to get their place confirmed as soon as possible, an efficient enrolment process is key and student feedback on this process was very positive last year.
I hope the examples above provide food for thought for other sixth form leadership teams who wish to grow their sixth forms. Ethos is absolutely paramount, and therefore all aspects of your admissions strategy should seek to reinforce this. Your potential Year 12 students will already have a clear understanding of what it means to be a sixth former at your school and are consequently far more likely to join you.