School Sixth Forms: An Outdated Luxury
English education has long revered the sixth form, dating back to Thomas Arnold’s decision to entrust sixth formers with the running of Rugby School. The value of sixth forms was reiterated in the 1938 report on secondary education by Sir William Spens, which argued that a sixth form provided character development, a sense of responsibility, and cultural admiration from abroad. Later reports, such as the Crowther report in the 1950s, praised the independent learning, intellectual discipline, and teacher-student relationships developed in sixth forms. Today, many parents, teachers, and politicians consider a school incomplete without a sixth form since it was a distinguishing feature of grammar and fee-charging schools in the past.
The notion that sixth forms are essential to establish a school’s credibility and status is widely accepted by proponents of comprehensive schooling, who argue that schools lacking a sixth form won’t allow younger students to have role models and access the best teachers. Authorities have since supported the creation of sixth forms in academies, and newly established schools, to ensure their accord with traditional schools in terms of prestige.
Despite the widely accepted influence of sixth forms, England only has 93 sixth-form colleges. The existence of many struggling school sixth forms, created primarily for economic reasons, makes it difficult for students to access quality education. Sixth-form colleges have consistently demonstrated superior A-level results, a higher probability of students gaining entrance into Russell Group universities, and accessibility for disadvantaged students entering university. Students often prefer institutions exclusively designed for their age group, enabling them to break away from schools that primarily cater to younger children.
However, the preference for traditional school sixth forms impedes the development of vocational and academic education, particularly in the arts, technical subjects, and less popular foreign languages. The narrow range of academic offerings caters to only a fraction of students, nourishing the erroneous belief that the academic strand of education is "superior." The preservation of the so-called "gold standard" of the A-level further prevents the emergence of unified 14-19 education that recognizes the significance of both academic and technical provision.
The concept of the sixth form that Arnold introduced has become an expensive, outdated, and counter-productive luxury that England needs to dismiss. The valuable resources should be directed towards sixth-form colleges that unite academic and technical provision within the comprehensive schooling principle. However, the likelihood of a Conservative government accepting such a move is slim.