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Reinventing Independent sixth form colleges

Teaching0096a min
The evolution of sixth form colleges

Martin Amis who as a 70s literary enfant terrible worked his way through fourteen schools and three crammers immortalised the image of the quick fix A level retake college in his first novel The Rachel Papers. He describes a tour as “nothing more ambitious ...than to show me it wasn’t a workhouse or a blacking factory.”  In Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version the broken and cuckolded schoolmaster Crocker-Harris faces a future at a crammer, a fate represented as exile to a kind of educational Siberia. Even today ‘Country Life’ reports that independent sixth form colleges specialise in taking in “the good, the bad and the ugly” who have crashed at traditional independent schools and need a no-frills, high cost A level resit educational accident and emergency service. 

The best A level retake teaching at so called crammer or tutorial colleges though was often innovative and stimulating and the atmosphere cultivated was of hard work in a liberal environment, without the extra-curricular distractions of independent school life. The top private colleges were famed for employing bright young teachers, stripping away the petty rules of more traditional settings and operating an effective system of testing and exam practice. If students were punctual and behaved well they would be treated with a degree of freedom unheard of in a traditional boarding school and more akin to a university. Most of the crammers were based in central London or in Oxford and Cambridge. Flexible timetabling and a bespoke approach to resit strategies and top university entrance were key hallmarks. Rochester Independent College, still known locally as Rochester Tutors, its original name, was founded in 1984 and was one of the first of the colleges to offer a campus style halls of residence. 

Principals at tutorial colleges tended to be practicing teachers- more often than not of Maths- rather than administrators. Notably the founder of d’Overbroeck’s in Oxford, Malcolm van Biervliet eschewed actually running the school on a day to day basis, instead remaining in the classroom for 30 years, leading by example. The tutorial colleges pioneered the Easter revision courses that are now an established feature of the educational landscape. Many colleges were at the forefront of welcoming international students to study in the UK. Teachers in tutorial colleges, like the students they inspired, were often those who may have struggled to flourish in more traditional settings but who thrived in more independently spirited environments. Perhaps the earliest tutorial college was Davies Laing and Dick, founded in 1931 to provide tutoring for Oxbridge and Colonial Service entrance exams. Another of the pioneering tutorial colleges was London’s MPW, founded by Robert Woodward, Rodney Portman and Nicolas Mander in 1975. In Woodward’s obituary notice in The Times the hands-on management style is described vividly with the Principals: “teaching more than 35 hours a week themselves while running every aspect of the school — building up a wide range of gifted young teachers, interviewing parents and students with charm and style, timetabling and paying the bills.” Heads and Principals at tutorial colleges tended to be maverick outliers with idiosyncratic and often highly autocratic leadership styles, underwritten by their status as sole proprietors and the absence of accountability structures such as governing bodies. 

Independent sixth form colleges, are though no longer the poor relation of the independent sector. The best private colleges have evolved into distinctive and high performing independent schools. They represent a different option for students looking for an alternative to traditional boarding schools and a focussed pathway to their university of choice. Leading UK advice website says: “They provide a realistic alternative to traditional private schools as they tailor study programmes to the needs of each student. Students are taught in small classes where they are sure to get individual attention.” CIFE (The Council for Independent Further Education) adds: “Colleges succeed in balancing authority with liberty without compromising their well-being. They generally offer a wider range of subjects and greater flexibility in subject choice than traditional schools. Unusual subject combinations can be accommodated more readily and joining a College for the second year of A level is often possible. At most colleges you will also find one year courses (which cover the whole A level in three terms and retake courses. Some colleges have also discovered a small but growing trend for IB students to “retake” their subjects on one year A level courses.” The tutorial colleges pioneered the Easter revision courses that are now an established feature of the educational landscape. Many colleges were at the forefront of welcoming international students to study in the UK and providing them with specialist English language teaching alongside A level classes. The recruitment of pre-university students from Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Nigeria and China was pioneered by the sixth form colleges and the flexibility of approach offered by the sector saw important partnerships forged with international agents and educational consultants. 

The sector today has retained the strengths of the early pioneers with small classes, exam oriented teaching and a clear focus on university entry. Experienced teachers at sixth form colleges are A-level subject specialists who are often examiners for the syllabuses they teach. Sixth form colleges now are often ISA accredited and many belong to educational groups, offering support in areas such as compliance, staff development, student wellbeing and international recruitment as well as access to greater investment to improve facilities. 

Dukes Education operates a number of sixth form colleges. To cite Cardiff Sixth Form College, the College is for students who “wish to win a place at the best universities to study courses which will provide fulfilment and challenge.” Similarly, since 1991, Rochester Independent College has welcomed many outstanding young Thai academics who win prestigious places on the programme in a national competition. The Thai government fund the students through their A levels at the College and then through top UK universities. The scholars return home, often after completing doctoral study, and work in senior positions for the Thai government. Some independent colleges have developed specialist niches in their field, Hampstead Fine Arts College establishing itself as the leading pre-university college for the visual and creative arts in London. Some independent colleges have retained a focus on A level study as the gold standard for top university entrance, others offer a wider range of programmes including foundation, BTEC, summer courses and high school terms. 

While focussed on academics, the 21st century sixth form college sees no compromise on behavioural and pastoral support and co-curricular provision now matches that offered by many more traditional schools. Cardiff Sixth Form College is a familiar name at the top of the league tables but recently the Independent Schools Association nominated the College for a mental health provision award, highlighting its pioneering work in this area. CSFC’s debating prowess, its success at the NASA Space Design are now as noteworthy as its A level results. Rochester Independent College now takes students from the age of 11+ and is well known for being one ofonly  a handful of non-uniform independent senior schools in the UK, the Independent Schools Inspectorate judging that the personal development and behaviour of its students was “excellent,” and saying: “The use of first names and informal attire generate a relaxed environment. Sanctions are few in an atmosphere which values respect highly, and rudeness is not tolerated.” FAC now takes students from Year 10 and CSFC celebrated its first year of top GCSE results after the launch of its one year GCSE programme and has now launched a two-year GCSE course. 

Interestingly Dukes Education has recently expanded into Ireland with Dublin’s Institute of Education and Cork’s Bruce College joining the family. These schools represent in some respects  a similar model of school to the UK tutorial college sector. ‘Grind schools’, as they have come to be known in Ireland, have a reputation for delivering high quality education aimed at maximising the achievement of their students in the Leaving Certificate, offering intensive and retake options as well as popular revision “grinds.” Independent sixth form colleges offer genuine intellectual stretch and challenge for the brightest students and an ideal stepping stone between school and university. The Dukes family of colleges come together each year for the Dukes Education Renaissance Scholars’ Symposium,, focused on the idea of the renaissance person and an all-round education and fostering the kind of intellectual adventurousness which will enable students to cultivate a broad and humane general knowledge as a context for their academic specialisms. The 2021 symposium at FAC featured talks and workshops from film director Alfonso Cuaron, author Andrew O’Hagen painter Peter Doig and theatre director Sean Holmes. The 2022 event at Rochester Independent College included performances by The London Gospel Choir and Ukrainian synth duo Bloom Twins, a talk by film director Clio Barnard, and an immersive theatre experience- The Ballad of St John’s Car Park about moments in Medway’s history that have been transformed by activism, from the protested closure of Chatham Dockyard in 1984 to the Black Lives Matter movement’s 2020 campaign to rename a local car park that commemorated a prominent slave trader. 2024’s event will be hosted by The Institute of Education in Dublin. 

It’s clear that sixth form is more than ever becoming the educational make or break time for students. It is then perhaps not a surprise that the specialist college sector is thriving.