School leadership: tips for heads of sixth form

When she first became a director of sixth form, Claire Green was dismayed by the lack of guidance on the requirements of the role. Now, with plenty of experience under her belt, she has put together five tips to support other teachers looking to step into what can be a complex – but rewarding – career move
2nd July 2021, 12:00am
Head Of Sixth Form Advice


School leadership: tips for heads of sixth form

Just what exactly does a head of sixth form do? If you’re not quite sure, then you are not alone. I wasn’t sure either before I stepped into the role.

I was certain there would be plenty of support to help me, though, in the form of online continuing professional development. But I quickly realised that there is very little advice out there that is specific to leading in sixth forms.

That lack of advice is a problem because the director of sixth form role is multifaceted and often challenging. In fact, I would argue that the only other job in a secondary school in which you are required to do more strategic plate-spinning is that of the headteacher.

So, what does it mean to be a director of sixth form? What should you prepare yourself for if you are taking on this role in September or if you are considering it as a next step?

1. Know your ‘why’

To be successful as a leader in the sixth-form phase, it is essential that you believe it to be the most exciting phase of students’ education to date. You must be able to get across a real sense that you believe in young people and the positive things they can bring.

To illustrate this, I have tried to embed a role model culture at our school. We have a philosophy that our sixth-form students are role models for their younger peers and deserve to be seen as such by staff.

This philosophy was clearly articulated to staff, students and governors at the start of the academic year and is reinforced constantly through social media (using the hashtag #RoleModels), assemblies, communications to staff and parents, and in everyday corridor chats.

2. Recognise the importance of recruitment and retention

Unlike other key-stage leaders, heads of sixth form need to think about strategies to recruit and retain their students.

This can initially be daunting. I recommend that you start by considering what your ideal number of students would be, then plan recruitment and retention strategies around this.

Do you want to retain the majority of your Year 11 students because you feel your sixth-form curriculum offer serves them well? Do you want to attract students from other schools because you want to create a more “adult” culture than that of the main school? Is a combination of both possible or practical in your setting?

When joining my current school, I felt that we needed to try to aim for a balance between the two. It therefore seemed sensible to review our admissions process and policy, and change the way we marketed our sixth form.

To help us present a clear message to prospective students and parents about our provision, we designed a new school logo, revamped our school website and introduced an online admissions system. We also created a short promotional video and embraced social media. As a result, we were able to double our applications.

3. Consider the balance of your curriculum

Some sixth forms decide to provide an unapologetically academic curriculum while others might provide more of a focus on the vocational. It is possible to be inclusive of both approaches if your curriculum is designed carefully but this must be planned in light of your particular student population.

When I reviewed the curriculum that I inherited, I decided that we ought to add to our offer - to widen the academic options but also to provide more options for applied general qualifications.

For example, we felt that there was a gap in our curriculum when it came to business, as business-related courses are among the most popular degree courses in the UK. We therefore decided to offer business at both A level and BTEC, to allow as many students as possible access to these courses.

In addition to the courses you offer, you will also need to factor in personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education, and non-qualification activity (NQA) - all of which is planned activity that does not count towards externally certified qualifications (also known as employability, enrichment and pastoral hours).

Consider what additional provision you will deliver and how, and what steps you’ll need to take to ensure students with special educational needs and disability are able to access all of your provision.

Post-18 guidance must be part of this offering. Be thorough and cover potential routes for all students: university, apprenticeships and employment options should be discussed, and students should be supported to apply for all possible routes of interest to maximise their chances of success.

4. Make monitoring efficient

There will be plenty of aspects of your provision that you will need to quality assure: curriculum, teaching and learning, outcomes, destinations, attendance…the list goes on. As there are so many areas of responsibility, monitoring systems need to work efficiently. They need to not be too onerous while still providing enough meaningful data to inform decisions.

Where possible, we have tried to use IT to support smarter tracking of our provision.

One example is the use of Google Forms - these can be used to gauge student and staff voice and to track NQA, such as enrichment, work experience or paid employment.

The form responses immediately generate a spreadsheet that allows data filtering and helps you to arrive at quick conclusions.

Being clear about whole-school priorities helps here, too, as this will allow you to perform targeted monitoring of particular groups of students.

5. Prioritise pastoral care

Sixth-form students are in a constant state of transition from Year 11 to adulthood, and often struggle with all the social pressures this brings. Pastoral care is therefore paramount.

Supporting sixth-form students pastorally can range from lending a shoulder to cry on following a friendship fallout over a love interest, to addressing extreme mental health-related safeguarding concerns.

Look carefully at your pastoral structure. Do you have tutors or mentors and heads of year? Do they have clear roles that they fulfil? Do you bring in external support or signpost to it effectively? Do you have safeguarding-trained staff within your team? These are all things to consider.

At our school, we have settled on a system of tutors for Year 12 and mentors for Year 13. Year 12 tutors support transition and deliver our PSHE programme while Year 13 mentors hold one-to-one meetings with students to ensure that bespoke care and guidance is provided.

Safeguarding-trained heads of year bolster this approach, alongside a senior tutor, who leads on wellbeing and signposts appropriately. In-school counselling from an external provider is also offered.

The above steps only scratch the surface of the multifaceted nature of sixth-form leadership. It’s not easy, but if you can get it right, then there can be no more rewarding job in a secondary school than this absolute gem of a role.

Claire Green is director of sixth form at Northampton School for Girls

This article originally appeared in the 2 July 2021 issue under the headline “A heads-up on how to lead the sixth form”

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