Should I go to sixth form or college?

In many areas of the country there are schools with their own sixth forms, offering courses which are designed to follow on from your GCSEs.

In other areas you will, depending on the qualifications you have already achieved, have the option of moving on to a sixth-form college instead.

However, in all parts of the country there are colleges which provide a much wider range of courses at different levels; these are usually called 'Further Education' (FE) colleges.

What's the difference between sixth form and a further education college?

A college will offer you a different learning environment to that experienced at a school's sixth form.

This is why some students choose to take their A levels, or vocational qualifications, at an FE college rather than stay on at their local school after taking GCSEs.

This section outlines the main differences to take into account when deciding whether an FE college is your preferred option.

Types of course

One of the first things you will notice at any further education college is that the range of courses is much wider.

Most colleges offer A levels as do sixth forms, but also have a huge number of other qualifications available in different subjects and at different levels.

Not all colleges, however, will offer the same 'mix' of subjects so it’s very important to check carefully what is available locally.

  • Level 1 qualifications are fairly basic, building confidence and providing an introduction to a subject, industry or area of work. They include, for example, NVQ Level 1, BTEC Introductory Certificates and OCR Nationals which are roughly equivalent to GCSEs gained at grades D to G. You would need qualifications at this level before progressing to level 2.
  • Level 2 qualifications (eg. NVQ level 2 and BTEC First) give a deeper understanding of a subject or area of work and are roughly equivalent to GCSEs at grades A* to C. Many employers like young people to have a level 2 qualification as a minimum.
  • Level 3 qualifications include A and AS levels, NVQ Level 3, BTEC Nationals, Advanced and Progression Diplomas. This level is almost always required for entry to university and many employers will be looking for Level 3 in applicants for more technical or supervisory roles.

Timetables

One of the first differences between school and college you will notice is your timetable! At school you won’t have had much free time and even if you had a 'free' period you were probably expected to spend it studying!

At college, depending on your course, things may be organised quite differently.

There could be several hours between lessons/lectures; you might not even have to attend at all for a full day; or if you are there all day it might start at 8.30am and not finish until 5pm. Sensible students use their free time for homework or study!

At college it’s also possible to study on a part-time basis, rather than take a full-time course.

Depending on the college and how courses are organised, you might be able to combine a full-time course with something part time.

For example, attending Monday to Friday studying a BTEC National, together with a GCSE resit one evening per week.

People

There are likely to be students from a wide range of ages, backgrounds and interests.

At school your classmates were all the same age but at college they could be anything from 16 to 80! So it can be quite a different learning environment.

Tutors and teaching staff are different too and sometimes look just like the students! Some tutors work full time so you can contact them any time of the week if you have any problems; others are part time and may only be in college for their actual teaching duties.

Tutors may just have teaching responsibilities but some also take on a 'pastoral' role.

You will have academic tutors who can help with any study problems you have; you’ll probably be assigned to a 'personal tutor' too, who can help you with any other issues to do with college life.

You’re likely to be on first name terms with most of the staff and all other students, whatever their age.

Dress code

Unlike school, there probably isn’t one!

So, is a further education college for me?

As always, talk to family, friends, school staff and your Connexions adviser and make sure you have all the information you need before making any decisions.

Also, use your interview at college well; ask questions about pass rates, drop-out rates and try to speak to current students – they will certainly tell you what it’s really like!

Try to have a tour of the college to see the facilities in the teaching areas, library, common room (though try not to spend TOO much time there when you’re a student!) and eating areas.

Many people say that colleges treat students 'more like adults' than is the case in a sixth form. This is probably true in that you are not told where to be all the time, when to eat, what to wear etc. However, it doesn’t suit everyone.

Some students prefer a learning environment which is very regulated rather than organising things on their own. You need to take a look at yourself and work out where you would achieve better – after all, that’s what matters in the end.

IMPORTANT NOTE! Up until now you have progressed from one academic year to the next automatically. It doesn’t work like that once you have finished Year 11 – in a sixth form, sixth-form college or FE college you will more than likely need to succeed in the first year of your course in order to enter the second year.