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Choosing a Sixth Form Curriculum

Les Webb, Managing Director of Education Advisers Ltd, says that the choice of curriculum really becomes crucial for the vital two years before university entry

ONE OF THE KEY areas to consider when looking at schooling options is which curriculum your son or daughter should follow. Until the age of 16, this is relatively straightforward. In England and Wales, schools follow the UK national curriculum up to the age of 14, and then prepare students for GCSE exams over two years from 14 to 16. The international GCSE (iGSCE) is favoured by many independent schools as it is traditionally regarded as a more rigorous s qualification.

The principal alternative to the UK national curriculum and the GCSE path up to the age of 16 is the International Baccalaureate (IB): the PYP (Primary Years Programme) up to age 12 followed by the MYP (Middle Years Programme) from 12 to 16. The IB is a global curriculum administered by the IBO and taught in schools all over the world. This makes it an attractive option for families who are constantly relocating and provides a continuity of approach for children who have to move schools frequently.

It is at 16+, in the vital two years before university entry,(known as ‘sixth form’) that the choice of curriculum really becomes crucial. The vast majority of top private schools in the UK offer A-levels, long considered the gold standard of British education. Students take three or four subjects which are studied in depth over the two-year period, providing an excellent grounding for university level courses. Sometimes parents are concerned that A-levels won’t enable their child to gain entry to global universities. However, this is not the case. Professor Bailey, headmaster of St Paul’s School, consistently one of the UK’s highest performing academic schools, says: “Most students at St Paul’s take A-levels, and our record in obtaining entry to the leading universities in North America is better than any other school in the UK. Such parental concerns are misguided, because they fail to recognise that the full education at a good school will extend pupils way beyond the set curriculum.”

Many schools have introduced an additional sixth form qualification, the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), which involves students conducting a piece of independent research over a period of several months, culminating in a presentation. The EPQ fills a gap in an A-level based sixth form education by introducing the key skills of independent research and presentation, that universities are increasingly looking for. Whether or not the EPQ is offered, all top independent schools strive to provide a broad and stimulating sixth form education that goes beyond the requirements of the exam specifications.

At St Paul’s, Professor Bailey says, “We ensure breadth by insisting that pupils choose at least one language and one creative subject at GCSE, and we allow them to choose any combination of A-levels and to study up to five. But we mainly offer breadth by offering a vast range of academic activities outside the assessed and timetabled curriculum.”

About a decade ago, a number of high-ranking academic schools led by Winchester and Charterhouse pioneered the ‘Pre-U’ as an alternative to A-levels, partly due to dissatisfaction with A-levels. Students would still choose three or four subjects, but the content was designed to stretch the most able beyond the confines of what many considered to be increasingly narrow and prescriptive A-level specifications. Dr Tim Hands, Headmaster at Winchester College comments: “The Cambridge Pre-U syllabus provides both students and teachers with great flexibility in the classroom, it is far less prescriptive in terms of content, fosters greater responsibility, and prepares students for the independent learning environment they will experience at university.”

For many international families, the idea of only studying three or four subjects in the sixth form seems remarkably narrow compared to equivalent courses in France, Germany, Italy etc. where students study a core range of subjects. This partly explains why the IB diploma has become so popular among students moving the the UK at 16+ but also, increasingly, as an attractive option for students who have come through the UK system. The IB curriculum is based on six subject area groups. Students take one subject from each group, three at higher-level (HL) and three at standard level (SL). In addition, there is a compulsory Theory of Knowledge paper, a requirement to complete a minimum number of Community Action Service hours, and an extended essay. The IB offers a broad sixth form education fostering excellent organisational skills and a minimum level of proficiency in Maths, Science, English, Languages and Humanities.

The IB Diploma Programme is now offered by 110 schools in the UK, 76 of which are independent day or boarding schools. The IB is mostly offered as an alternative to A-levels but in some schools such as Sevenoaks it is the only curriculum available to sixth formers and over 200 students are entered for the Diploma qualification every year, consistently achieving exceptional results. “All our sixth formers pursue the IB Diploma Programme, which… represents, in the school’s view, the best preparation for university and the world of work,” says Katy Ricks, Head of Sevenoaks School. A former pupil of the school agrees. “The first year of university was easy compared to the IB. I think the IB was a real challenge… a great basis for the rest of the challenges in life.”

The IB, A-levels and Pre-U are all academically demanding qualifications. However, there is an increasing and welcome move among independent schools to offer an alternative, the BTEC, for students who would rather follow a more hands-on practical course, where assessment is structured throughout the course rather than on a final set of exams. BTECs have long been offered by state colleges and the private sector has been slow to catch up.

A final option for pre-university study is a Foundation Programme (FP), which can in many cases be a shorter and more certain route to university. Originally designed for international students transferring to the UK, FPs are offered both by universities themselves and by many independent colleges, and generally operate as a specific ‘pathway’, the most common being Business Studies, Engineering or Humanities/Social Sciences. Great care should be taken when selecting a foundation programme as the progression rates vary widely. Professional advice can be invaluable so speak to an experienced consultant if this is the path you are considering.

So which curriculum is best for your 16+ son or daughter? The key to guiding your child is to get them to ask themselves a few basic questions:

  1. What do you want to study? Sixth form study is intensive and unless your child enjoys their chosen courses it is likely to be a hard slog.
  2. Do you have strengths across the board, or do you want to focus on a limited range of subjects you enjoy and are good at?
  3. What do you want to do after school? For specialist degree courses such as Art and Design, Medicine or Engineering it can be beneficial to be able to concentrate on key subject areas.
  4. Would you prefer a more practical hands on course, for example in Business Studies, Music Technology or Hospitality, with continued assessment or do you want to get your teeth into an academic subject examined after two years?


As with all decisions relating to your child’s education there is no ‘right’ answer about which curriculum you should choose. Do your research, find out what is available, and if necessary consider alternative schools. A consultation with an experienced adviser can be invaluable in guiding your child towards the best curriculum and the best school.

For impartial, expert advice call +44 1622 813870 or E: info@educationadvisers.co.uk



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