Schools are using the sixth form centre to attract and retain a more transient sixth form population.
One of the weapons in the school facilities arms race is the sixth form centre. You’ll spot them on your school tour. They are the modern glass edifices thrusting out from between the more tired older brick and block buildings. Think shiny suit amongst tweed jackets.
They aren’t cheap. A new one typically costs just over £1M but they can reach £8M. There must be more to them than just frivolous status symbol since both independent and state schools are building them. So why have them?
Schools compete for sixth formers
To start with, academic provision for sixth formers has become more competitive over recent years. Pupils are more likely than ever to switch from their GCSE school to a different sixth form. I estimate 10-20% of pupils switch. Sixth form colleges have become attractive and successful alternatives to schools with sixth forms. And many single sex schools have become mixed in the sixth form. So school marketing departments have had to rethink and tailor their sixth form proposition to the 16-18 year old. Cue the tailored sixth form programme in a tailored sixth form centre.
A sixth form centre recognises sixth formers’ independence and maturity
With more switching at sixth form, schools have to demonstrate facilities that are relevant to 16 to18 year olds, rather than 11 to 18 year olds. And it’s not just the sixth form centre. To start with there’s the careers and further education department. Some schools will have separate libraries, art studios, DT laboratories, or science laboratories that not only have more advanced stuff in them, but are accessible to sixth formers throughout the day. Otherwise, the list of tailored facilities pretty much ends there.
The sixth form centre recognises a sixth former’s growing independence and maturity. It is tailored to the 16-18 year old; an exclusive domain for only the most senior and mature pupils. It conveys status to the pupil in much the same way as wearing a suit, lunchtimes beyond the school gates, or being a prefect.
Sixth formers need somewhere to go in free periods
What do sixth formers have more of than other pupils? The answer, of course, is free periods. Or is it study periods? Either way, they need to be somewhere in those free study periods. And the library doesn’t really cut it. Note that nobody is building fifth form centres or third form common rooms. Why? Because they have no free periods so there’s no need for a specific facility for them. Boarders have common rooms in their boarding houses for their spare time, but not day pupils.
A sixth form centre has to be cool
It also has to be cool. It has to be modern, open and light, “state-of-the-art” (whatever that is). The centrepiece is the common room for students to socialise, with sofas, bean bags, pool tables, TVs, X-Boxes and free high speed Wi-fi. In addition there should be a café or at least a kitchen with microwaves and vending machines. There’ll be an independent learning centre (library to you and me). And new classrooms should be arranged as mini lecture theatres with amphitheatre seating. I’ve seen a sixth form centre with a roof deck. That is cool.
Not every school has a sixth form centre. It’s true that not every school can afford one. And, not every school feels the need to compete for sixth formers in this way. Some schools argue that extracting and isolating sixth formers denies the school community its most influential members.
The reality is that having a sixth form centre doesn’t completely remove sixth formers from the rest of the school. But there is some freeing up of resources and there are less large bodies colliding with smaller ones.
If you were to ask parents whether they would sign their child up for a school that had a sixth form centre their responses would probably be ambivalent to mildly positive. Ask whether they would want the school to spend between £1M and £8M on a new sixth form centre, instead of another facility, I suspect the responses would be more polarised.