Stepping Up: life in and after Sixth Form

Aug 17, 2023

The move to Sixth Form is commonly recognised as one of the more significant transitions in a child’s educational development. Head of Sixth Form, Mr Tolputt, discusses how the School supports and guides pupils as they take this step.

What marks out Sixth Form as a step up from the GCSE years?
I would define it as a development from what pupils experience further down the Senior School. For me to sit here and say that Sixth Form is all about leadership, taking responsibility, being independent, and being motivated begs the question ‘well why is that not the case lower down the School?’ And the answer is, of course, it is.

However, because by the time the students are in the Sixth Form they have an eye on the window at the end of the corridor, there is much more of an onus on drilling down into those skills and qualities they need for life beyond school, rather than more particularly those which enable them to be a success whilst at school. By this, I mean the practical manifestations of leadership – I will regularly pop into the Sixth Form Centre to ask for their input; their ideas on something, how this or that could be better, their assistance with running an event, and so on. Leadership at Cokethorpe is something that is seen everywhere; it just takes on a different flavour in Sixth Form. The students are required to run social events, to give talks for those who wish to do so, and to give time to charity – we have just embarked upon a relationship with Helen and Douglas House which will be entirely led by members of the Sixth Form, for instance. Whatever their expertise, we emphasise that it is no longer enough to be really good at singing or at hockey, we ask them to consider what benefit that gives to the wider School community, and how are they going to support younger pupils in that field?

One of the reasons for setting up the Tutor Partnering programme was to create direct channels between students in the Sixth Form and pupils in the younger years and to promote opportunities for guidance and inspiration. Members of the Sixth Form support AOBs, they help out with Prep School discos, and so on. Further afield, they lead sports activities at local primary schools and give academic mentoring to pupils around the country via the Colet Mentoring scheme. They have a responsibility beyond themselves.

That also speaks to the pedagogical approach, it is more discursive than learning by rote.
Absolutely. Indeed, I think that would be the first thing you notice in that development from Fifth Form, you will go into lessons and you will feel that it is all a bit different. The approach has more in keeping with a university seminar than it does with, say, a Second Form Physics lesson. There is a teacher who is coordinating a conversation and it is harder to tell who is really leading the discussion. The dynamic will be more ‘guide at the side’ than ‘sage on the stage’. Teachers become mentors, and the structure of engagements between teachers and students becomes less hierarchical.

I also think it is important for Sixth Form development that students are able to make controlled mistakes and to, temporarily, get their work/life balance wrong on the grounds that this is an important life lesson. Come the internal exams at the end of the Michaelmas Term, if they have not adhered to the guidance along the way, the results will likely not be what they had hoped for, so we sit down and agree that we need to change the approach. That way, come the end of Sixth Form, they will leave us not only with excellent A Level or BTEC results, but will have learnt that understanding how you work, and learning how to manage your time and your priorities are all very important and easy to get wrong. I try and find that sweet spot between ensuring the students feel supported and guided whilst at the same time making sure they are given the flexibility and freedom to, a) fail, in a way that does not have any long-term impact. And b) develop self-reliance, independence, and resilience.

Looking at Sixth Form life more broadly, you can see the examples of this ownership and sense of personal responsibility playing out in the numbers of students making use of the shuttle bus into Witney at lunchtimes. If we had got this wrong, you might see two-thirds of the year group queueing up, as it is, although a healthy number of students are making use of the option, it is not the same students each time, and we are managing it with one large minibus. That is a healthy sign of a work/life balance operating harmoniously.

How is this reflected in the tutor-student relationship?
Students need as much support in the Sixth Form as they did previously, but it is a different kind of support. It allows students to maintain ownership, being helped to make the right decisions rather than having more of those decisions made for them. However, even with this new emphasis, our three-member Sixth Form staff team and our specialist Sixth Form tutors meet with pupils twice a day and are
the first point of contact for students and their parents.

What do we do in younger year groups to ease that transition to Sixth Form?
There is a degree of change that naturally happens once pupils enter the Fifth Form. They have their GCSEs at the end of the year, with coursework along the way in some cases, and they learn quickly that they have total control over their results in the summer. It is an opportunity to take a more active role in leadership through learning to lead themselves: who do I work best with, where do I work most effectively, and which study methods work best for me.

Added to that, the pupils in the Fifth Form will begin thinking about the next rung in the Scholarships and Awards process for the Sixth Form, throughout which there is a strong emphasis on Leadership (plus, of course, thinking ahead to the dedicated Leadership Grants for when they are in the Lower Sixth). They will also start to hear more regularly from me about School life beyond the GCSEs; for example, we have the Sixth Form Preview Evening during the Michaelmas Term of Fifth Form, which supports the process of Sixth Form subject choice, whilst encouraging the pupils to consider the wider Sixth Form experience.

Of course, many of these engagements start much earlier. The careers journey at Cokethorpe is a bit like the source of the River Thames in so far as it begins further back than some might think. Our Head of Careers begins working with pupils in Second Form with aspiration testing – a process which continues each year as the pupils progress up the Senior School. Goal-setting sessions begin, helping the pupils start to think about their future options and that they are giving due consideration to the suitability of the subject choices they make at GCSE for their desired path. One-to-one careers interviews take place in the Third and Fifth Forms to bed down those thought processes on subjects for GCSE and A Level choices respectively. These are supplemented by workshops and lectures all tailored to helping them feel informed about the decisions they will be making.

It is a relatively young age to be making choices which have an ultimate bearing on their lives and it is crucially important, therefore, that we support pupils through our Careers Service, as well as through their Tutors, their Housemasters and Housemistresses, and their teachers from really the Third and Fourth Forms. Once they are on that two-year GCSE pathway, their journey has already begun. It is significant that they get that right and we ensure they feel supported in making those selections that are best for them and what they want to accomplish. We make that commitment of support to those pupils who join us from outside the School to start the GCSE years as well.

The Cokethorpe Diploma in the First and Second Forms and the Second Form independent research project provide early opportunities to begin engaging with and honing those skills necessary for life in Sixth Form at Cokethorpe.

Looking to Sixth Form again, there are lots of programmes at Cokethorpe to aid students’ preparedness for life after school.
There are soft skills or qualities that are taught everywhere, but we also have dedicated programmes in place that push beyond some of those behavioural tropes. The Sixth Form Skills programme includes interview technique sessions, public speaking workshops, cooking, managing budgets and finances, study skills, and so on. There is also the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) that many of our students opt to take, which is an extraordinary option in terms of acquiring skills. They go off to university or the workplace having done a really significant and meaningful research project, touching on things such as time management.

We also have the Electives programme. This runs for an hour per week for ten weeks each term, throughout the Lower Sixth year. The purpose of this programme is to encourage a joy of learning for learning’s sake. The students sign up to three electives, which are each run by a member of staff who is sharing a passion for a subject matter beyond that which they teach or is part of the curriculum. I try and encourage the students to explore electives that are totally separate from their A Level or BTEC choices.

Where do our students go from Sixth Form and how do we support them in getting there?
They go to a variety of selective institutions, they go to Russell Group universities, they go to Oxbridge. Others opt to take Degree Apprenticeships with some of the biggest names around – Rolls Royce and JCB, for example. What we are finding more and more is that a good outcome is one that fits the student rather than the traditional ‘rankings’ in terms of where those opportunities sit. We are not unique in this; having been to a UCAS conference recently, you hear more and more examples of this. There was a speaker who had five offers from universities, including from Cambridge, but wanted to pursue a Degree Apprenticeship and had to apply widely to find one. It turns on its head some of those old assumptions that the highest competition for places is at the best higher education establishments. Our job is to make students aware of their options and to support them to think of themselves in the middle of this decision. A prospectus does not show you the full picture, and we have to support the student to look, not at which is better A, B, or C, but which is better for me and what I want to do longer term. We are fortunate in having a next-steps programme that is as suited to supporting a student towards a Degree Apprenticeship with IBM, for instance, as it is a student preparing to apply for Natural Sciences at Cambridge.

Edward Tolputt - Cokethorpe Staff Profile - An Independent Day School