Sixth Form Leadership: A Multifaceted Role
When I decided to start writing a sixth form leadership blog, I did so with the intention of opening up a conversation about sixth form leadership and education as there is so little literature available specifically on this phase of education.
Whilst our students being #RoleModels is the main reason why I believe sixth form leadership is such a great role, I thought it would be useful to outline another key consideration: sixth form leadership is one of the most multifaceted roles in our secondary schools. Other than the role of the Headteacher, I would argue that there is no other secondary leadership role that requires such an array of knowledge or skills if it is to be done successfully.
The Sixth Form section of the Ofsted School Inspection Handbook[i] and the 16 to 19 study programmes: guidance[ii] demonstrates some of the reasons the role is such an all-encompassing one. Indeed, that there is a separate Ofsted judgement for the sixth form arguably demonstrates in and of itself that this phase of secondary education is significant in scope.
I hope the following summary of the many and varied aspects of sixth form leadership provides a useful guide for those interested in leading within 16-19 education. Having now been involved in sixth form leadership for five years and in two different schools (both with larger than average sixth forms[iii]), I hope to be able to do the role justice but also recognise that this is in no way an exhaustive list. I have also included questions for sixth form leaders in each of the aspects to allow others to frame their own thinking.
The DfE guidance states that “All 16 to 19 study programmes should be designed to provide students with a structured and challenging learning programme” which has breadth and depth and prepares students for future study or work. One of the challenges of sixth form leadership is ensuring that we are offering a curriculum that we can genuinely argue meets these expectations for all our students. Whilst sixth forms are free to set their own entry criteria, due attention should be paid to the school’s particular context and student population. Consideration must also be given to the vision of each sixth form: some schools, based on their student demographic, offer a more vocational focused curriculum, whereas others might offer a much more academic diet. Most sixth forms will clearly offer a combination of the two, but whatever the approach, the sixth form leader must be able to explain the rationale. The sixth form curriculum should serve its students and prepare them as well as possible for post-18 destinations and must include statutory PSHE.
Questions to consider:
· What is our vision for our curriculum offer: academic, vocational or a mix of both? Why?
· Does our Key Stage 5 curriculum offer allow the majority of our Key Stage 4 students the breadth and depth of curriculum that will support their future study or employment?
· Does it also offer enough choice and variety to attract external students to join the school for Key Stage 5 study? Do we want or need to attract external students? The latter question will be dependent on individual school circumstances and facilities. There are clear benefits to large sixth forms, with more curriculum choice and bespoke pathways possible as well as statistical evidence to support larger sixth forms achieving stronger outcomes[iv], however, not all schools will have the facilities to house increased numbers.
· How will we ensure we deliver the statutory PSHE curriculum for Key Stage 5? Will this be delivered discretely or through tutor time or ‘stop the clock’ days?
All 16-19 learners should complete Non-Qualification Activity (NQA), according to the DfE guidance. This can take a range of forms. It might be sport or performing arts, Duke of Edinburgh, Sports Leaders, Young Enterprise, accredited First Aid, TEfL or finance courses or online enrichment such as MOOCs. The sixth form leader must enable all students access to a choice of enrichment opportunities in addition to their formal programmes of study.
Questions to consider:
· How will NQA be timetabled?
· How much choice are we able to offer our students?
· How do we ensure all students complete NQA?
· How do we know if NQA has been a success?
Recruitment and Retention
Recruitment and retention figures offer a crude judgement about the success of a sixth form. We might consider a sixth form which retains most of its Year 11 students and attracts students from other schools to be a success on some level. Whilst this is clearly one measure of success, this will only hold weight if the figures remain buoyant over time: a sixth form will need to serve its students well throughout their Key Stage 5 studies and secure strong outcomes consistently if recruitment and retention figures are to remain impressive over time, otherwise students will ‘vote with their feet.’
There is also a key financial consideration around recruitment: more students means more money for the school. This, in turn, allows a wider curriculum offer, a better environment and improved resources etc so there is a clear incentive to keep numbers strong. This means real effort should be put into the admissions process. Yearly reviews of the curriculum offer, admissions criteria, outcomes and destinations will inform the next admissions cycle. There are some useful tools available to sixth form leaders now that make this process easier to manage. Online admissions systems allow sixth form leaders real oversight of their applicants and the bespoke functionality to communicate regularly with selected groups of applicants in order to maintain interest throughout the cycle. Careful planning of induction and enrolment will also help to optimise numbers, as will use of social media to both promote applications directly and consistently celebrate the positive day-to-day experiences of current sixth form students. Attention to the branding of the sixth form is also important in generating interest, whether that be a specific sixth form logo or a glossy prospectus, website or promotional video.
Questions to consider:
· What is our current retention rate for Year 11 students? How many students apply to our sixth form from other schools?
· How do we ensure most Year 11 students want to remain with us for the sixth form? What strategies do we employ to retain more students?
· What is our ideal admissions figure and why?
· What admissions system are we using: an online platform or paper applications?
· Do we have a clear sixth form identity or brand? What image of our sixth form does this promote?
Monitoring and evaluation
As a sixth form leader, monitoring and evaluation is essential for all the aspects of the role. Sixth form leaders should be involved in monitoring and evaluating a whole host of features of provision: the quality of teaching and learning; outcomes for all students; NQA; recruitment, retention and destinations; careers support; attendance and safeguarding. I’m sure there are other aspects I have omitted too but even from this list, we can see the huge scope of the role of the sixth form leader. This means effective data analysis has to be a key tool in the sixth form leader’s kit.
Questions to consider:
· What systems are in place for monitoring and evaluation? Are these whole school systems or sixth form only? What is the rationale for each?
· How do we ensure we get a wide range of data from our evaluation? What is our evidence base and does it include all stakeholders?
· How is monitoring and evaluation used as a developmental tool for sixth form improvement? If it’s not driving improvement don’t do it!
Post-18 advice and guidance
A crucial element of 16-19 study is preparation for life after school, whether that be university, an apprenticeship or the world of work. This means that within months of beginning Year 12, sixth form leaders must ensure all students have access to current information, support and guidance about all the possible options for post-18 study or work. There must also be a rigorous process in place to ensure all students receive individual support with their post-18 applications, and all references produced are of a quality that gives students the best possible chance of success. This support should continue throughout Year 13 to ensure a smooth transition to our students’ next phase of education or employment.
Sixth form leaders are also responsible for ensuring all students have completed some meaningful work experience during the sixth form and the encouragement of ‘youth social action’ such as charity work. We must consider how we can include these elements without compromising the curriculum for our students.
Questions to consider:
· How is our post-18 advice and guidance organised and communicated to both students and parents?
· Are we communicating information about all types of post-18 progression?
· Do we have specialist support in place for students making early university applications for Oxbridge or Medicine, Dentistry or Veterinary Science?
· Are all staff involved in the process trained to ensure all students have access to current information?
· Who should write references: subject staff or tutors/mentors? Why?
· How do we ensure all students receive the same high level of support?
· How do we continue to support students throughout Year 13 and prepare them for life beyond school?
· How do we monitor destinations data?
· How is work experience organised?
· Are there opportunities for ‘youth social action’ and student leadership?
Pastoral support, behaviour and safeguarding
As I have previously written about, joining the sixth form is an important transition for our students and therefore the support we provide them to ensure their wellbeing is maintained is absolutely crucial. Sixth form leaders should ensure there is an appropriate level of support and the personnel in place to maintain this throughout our students’ sixth form experience. This will include ensuring there are safeguarding-trained members of the sixth form team, along with staff able to signpost to internal and external support services as appropriate. The statutory PSHE programme includes topics linked to student wellbeing, safeguarding and relationships and there should also be a system in place to ensure this is delivered effectively. Since the start of the pandemic, the range of online resources available to our students has grown exponentially and we should not abandon these just because students have returned to school.
Behaviour in the sixth form is something often over-looked, as there is an assumption that by virtue of their age, students will automatically behave well in the sixth form. Clearly, this is not always the case and sixth form leaders should have mechanisms in place to support staff and students to ensure high standards of behaviour are maintained at all times.
Questions to consider:
· Who is responsible for safeguarding in our sixth form – do we have enough support in this regard?
· Do students feel supported and how do we know?
· How is the pastoral system structured and what is the rationale for this? Are there form tutors/mentors, Heads of Year or non-teaching pastoral managers?
· Are we signposting our students to appropriate internal/external support?
· Are we communicating the message that student wellbeing is central to all that we do?
· What is behaviour like in the sixth form and how do we ensure our students model positive behaviours to their younger peers?
This feature of sixth form leadership may not be one that springs immediately to mind, but it should not be overlooked. Sixth form numbers, as discussed earlier, dictate the level of funding allocated to our schools. Sixth form leaders should consider ‘value for money’ in terms of the provision offered and the support available to our students. There are also 16-19 specific funds in addition, such as the Bursary, which can support disadvantaged students throughout the sixth form and the new 16-19 Tuition Fund, introduced this year to ensure all 16-19 learners have their English and Maths GCSE qualifications despite the disruption caused by the pandemic.
Questions to consider:
· Does our sixth form provide value for money?
· Are we optimising our funding by maintaining buoyant admissions figures?
· Are eligible students receiving the 16-19 Bursary?
· Have plans been put in place to use the 16-19 Tuition Fund effectively for all students?
I hope that the above summary is useful for those already leading sixth forms or those considering applying to do so. Whilst the facets of sixth form provision I have covered are far from exhaustive, it is clear that sixth form leadership is vast in its scope. This might seem daunting at first sight, but I would argue this is one of the things that makes the role such an enjoyable one; it is certainly never dull! In order to do the job well, the sixth form leader must be a good communicator to ensure there is clarity despite the many different aspects at play. The multifaceted nature of the role also means that all middle leaders will have some experience and transferrable skills, whether they have previously led curriculum areas or pastorally so ‘stepping up’ to sixth form leadership should be seen as an attractive option for all; an absolute gem of a role.
References [i]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/843108/School_inspection_handbook_-_section_5.pdf , pp. 83-86 [ii] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/16-to-19-study-programmes-guide-for-providers/16-to-19-study-programmes-guidance-2020-to-2021-academic-year [iii] Average sixth form size in the UK is 209, according to: https://feweek.co.uk/2016/09/23/bigger-is-better-for-sixth-forms/ [iv] https://feweek.co.uk/2016/09/23/bigger-is-better-for-sixth-forms/