The Sixth Form in English Schools: a Complete Guide for Students

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In a previous article, we looked at the major differences between sixth form and university. But there’s an earlier transition you’ll need to make in your education and, to a lesser extent, your lifestyle: the change from GCSE to Sixth Form.

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Sixth Form is, in a way, all about preparing you for going to university, so you’ll notice some big differences both in the academic difficulty and in the logistical arrangements of your study. In this article, we’re going to try to allay any concerns you might have about this transition, and look at some of the key differences between these two stages of your education. We’ll also give you some tips on how to choose a Sixth Form that’s right for you.

Key differences between GCSE and Sixth Form

Image shows a group of sixth formers sitting around a table.
The way you work at A-level will be different; one example is that class sizes will probably be smaller.

Representing as it does a fairly significant lifestyle change, the transition from GCSEs to Sixth Form brings with it a few new things to which you will need to adjust. These are nothing to be concerned about; they’re just moving you towards the type of studying you’ll be doing at university, preparing you for the time when you will experience a very different style of teaching and living to what you’ve had before.

Grade requirements

While anybody can enrol on GCSE courses, A-levels are a bit more academically selective. You can expect to have to meet minimum GCSE grade requirements in order to enrol on A-level courses, either at school or at a further education college. These are not normally high; for instance, a grade C in Maths and English.

Number of subjects

Image shows a black background covered with green mathematical formulae.
If you find Maths a challenge, you don’t need to carry it on at A-level.

You’ll have been used to studying ten or more GCSE subjects up to now, but at A-level, that number is drastically cut down. You’ll usually select three full A-level subjects, plus one AS (though many choose to carry on their fourth AS-level to A2). This narrower selection of subjects allows you to focus more on the subjects that interest you, so you can drop the ones you hated at GCSE. This should mean that you find it easier to motivate yourself to study. However, when it comes to choosing your subjects, it’s worth bearing in mind what university course you are likely to want to apply for; we’ve previously put together a guide to choosing the right A-levels to help you make this sometimes tricky selection. Unlike at GCSE, when you’re required to study certain subjects (such as English and Maths), you’ll have a greater degree of choice at A-level. Some schools make it compulsory to study A-level General Studies; although most reputable universities will exclude it from their offers, it’s still worth making an effort if you have to take it, as a low mark in General Studies won’t look good on your UCAS application. It’s designed to broaden your horizons, and study tends to focus on debating various current affairs. The three AS exams test your analytical thinking and communication, and don’t require much revision. One of the three papers is about science, with multiple choice questions testing you on GCSE-level science. Think of it as keeping your GCSE knowledge alive!

Difficulty level

Think back to when you first started your GCSE courses; they were difficult, right? But I bet they seem easy now. As you might expect, the difficulty level of A-level work is a step up from GCSE, and they will inevitably seem difficult at first. I remember one of my sixth form teachers telling me that most students, when they first start the A-level English Literature course having done well at GCSE, are working at about Grade D standard at A-level. However, as you start to develop the right skills, your grades should rise again. A-level courses start to develop your academic skills, such as critical and analytical thinking, which you won’t have been used to at GCSE.


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A-level work is more focused on analysis than rote learning.

Prepare to be pushed harder by your teachers, who will expect more from you now that you’re that bit older and more mature. Original thinking is increasingly valued, preparing you for the fact that this will be expected of you at university. They won’t expect an overnight transformation, and will encourage you to develop the academic skills they want to see. You’re likely to develop these skills without consciously thinking about them, so don’t worry about this. Note that you may also have the added pressure of needing to succeed at AS level in order to carry on to A2 level.

Amount of freedom

In contrast to your GCSE timetable, your A-level timetable will include a generous helping of “free periods” during which you’re at liberty. You’ll probably be allowed to go off the school site completely if you want to, provided you’re back in time for your next lesson. Of course, conscientious students use free periods to study, but you’re not obligated to do so. Because of the increase in your free time, that oft-cited issue of “time-management” will start to rear its ugly head. Although you’ll still be given a timetable, you’ll have to get used to taking a bit more responsibility for your own study time. It’s good preparation for university!

Dress code

In keeping with the fact that you’re generally treated more like an adult once you get to Sixth Form, many schools ditch school uniform once you’ve done your GCSEs, so as a Sixth Former, you’re likely to have a different dress code. Some schools impose a smart dress code on their Sixth Formers, while others take a more relaxed approach and allow you to dress as you like.

How to choose the right Sixth Form for you

Many students will go on to study A-levels at the same school at which they did GCSEs, and where all their friends are, but this isn’t obligatory. You now have the option of moving somewhere else if you so wish. If you’re applying locally, you probably already have a good idea of which establishments have the best reputation; if you’re moving away from the place where you did your GCSEs, you’ll need to do a bit of internet research to find out which are the best places to do A-levels.

Sixth form of a school or further education college?

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A college of further education is usually larger than a school, so they may be able to offer more subject choices and better facilities.

One of the decisions you will need to make is whether to study for your A-levels at the Sixth Form of a school (perhaps that of your own) or a further education college. If your school doesn’t have a Sixth Form, you will need to decide between moving to another school and going to college. Academic reputation should, of course, be one of your primary considerations when selecting somewhere to do your A-levels, but it is not the only one. One of your considerations in making this decision may be the fact that virtually everyone at a school’s Sixth Form are likely to have done the majority of their education at that school, and will therefore all know each other. Coming into a Sixth Form in which friendship groups are already firmly established can be an extremely isolating experience, and the presence of pre-existing cliques makes it harder to make friends. On the other hand, if you go to a further education college, everyone will be new and few people will know each other; everyone’s in the same boat, so it will be easier to get to know people. The atmosphere at a further education college will differ significantly from that of a school’s Sixth Form. Further education colleges usually offer vocational courses as well as A-levels, so there’s a greater variety of backgrounds present, as well as potentially some older students. You’ll usually address teachers by their first names, rather than the formality of “Mr”, “Mrs” and “Miss” at school (even at Sixth Form level). Further education colleges tend to feel more “grown up” because of this, and because of the fact that there are no year sevens tearing noisily around the grounds.


Image shows a typical sixth-form college.
It’s always worth taking the time to look around your prospective college.

It goes without saying that you should visit each of the Sixth Forms and further education colleges that you’re interested in, as this is the only way to get a real feel for their atmosphere (most places have nice websites and brochures, with professional photographs that can hide all manner of sins!). Make sure you get a tour of all the facilities, including classrooms, library, grounds, common room and so on.


You’ll almost certainly have an informal interview if you want to take your application further. These aren’t like the mythically tough Oxbridge interviews, or even job interviews, but more of a chance to chat about you and your aspirations. You should use interviews to your advantage by asking plenty of searching questions of your interviewer; find out about pass rates, how many people drop out, how many students go on to top universities, what they do to help students apply for university (including Oxbridge preparation, if this is what you’re aiming for), and so on. If you are able to, also talk to current students to get a better idea of what the school is really like.

Moving school for sixth form

Starting at a new school is never easy, and it’s no easier for the fact that you’re now a bit older. Finding your way around, making new friends and getting used to new teachers, on top of the fact that your academic level must now take a step up, can prove a stressful time for many students in this situation. However, if you do find yourself in this scenario, consider it useful preparation for university and beyond. You should be assigned a fellow student – a ‘buddy’ – to look after you in your first days, and if you’re struggling with anything, whether that’s making friends or keeping up in class, you should be allocated a pastoral tutor to whom you can go for advice and support.

What happens at Sixth Form (other than A-levels)

As you’ll soon find, A-levels aren’t the only thing that will dominate your Sixth Form years (to a greater or lesser degree).

Applying for university

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If you’re thinking of applying to Oxford or Cambridge, make sure that the Sixth Form you choose has the knowledge and resources to support you.

It’s during sixth form that you’ll start the slightly daunting process of applying for university. This happens in the first term of your second (A2) year, so you’ll have the summer to think in more depth about what courses and universities you might like to apply to. If you’re applying to Oxford or Cambridge, the deadline is mid-October, so it’s likely that your teachers will encourage you to start writing your personal statement over the holidays. You should be given plenty of guidance with this, and your Sixth Form or college should also organise trips to university open days, or fairs at which the country’s universities exhibit. These fairs are a good opportunity to pick up university prospectuses and chat to admissions staff.

Part-time jobs

If you feel you can handle your workload, you may want to consider getting a part-time job while you’re in Sixth Form, at least for the first year. As well as giving you some pocket money that you can put towards university or spend on yourself, a part-time job is also a valuable asset to your CV and university application, and it develops your maturity and life experience. Read our guide to part-time jobs and their benefits here.

Extra-curricular activities

Sixth form is a good time to take up some new hobbies, or continue old ones. Not only do these help you relax and switch off from the pressure of your studies, but they’ll also benefit you in that they teach valuable life skills that you can talk about on your university application. If you’ve had no hobbies or other interests so far, Sixth Form is the time to acquire them so that you can include them on your UCAS personal statement. Taking on some extra-curricular activities is also good for honing those time management skills that we mentioned earlier. So, if you’re worrying about the transition from GCSEs to Sixth Form, there’s no need to! You’ll have plenty of guidance, and you’ll almost certainly find that you relish the new-found freedoms offered by Sixth Form life. This is a big step towards adult life, so enjoy it.


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