University has long been prescribed as the next step for the majority of 18-year-olds. Yet, as a sixth-former on the brink of eternally parting ways with A-level education, I find that the transition between my sheltered, structured school life and the vast independence of university seems incredibly daunting.
My first concern is academic. At first glance, sixth form provides a solid foundation for undergraduate studies, so I should have little to fear. The abundance of academic extracurricular clubs, the emphasis on wider reading and the availability of extended scholarly projects have allowed me to exercise an independence in my study that I certainly couldn't at GCSE. Regimented punishments for missed homework and poor grades have fallen away, helping the average sixth-former to recognise the importance of self-motivation.
However, this independence is still somewhat elusive in terms of time management. My school, for example, operates a strict register for free periods - a system that quashes students' ability to decide when or where they study and is at odds with the less-structured university approach. Such disparity is also apparent in some teaching styles. On occasion, teachers pressed by the time restrictions of the academic year will spoon-feed course content to their classes, deviating from the process of independent research and learning that takes place at university.
Indulgent teaching such as this just doesn't seem to be viable at undergraduate level because of the diminished presence of academics, who tend to be completing their own research while lecturing.
On the plus side, though, sixth form does facilitate more mature relationships with teachers. The difficulty of A-levels means that students and educators work together towards a common goal. The ability to create and maintain such relationships is arguably essential not only to university life but also to everyday adulthood.
Yet the relationships I am most concerned about at university are not those with teachers but those with my future peers - the jury is definitely out as to whether sixth form equips students to make and sustain new friendships. The smaller environment that I've found myself in at sixth form has made for limited social circles, in which everyone is secure in their familiarity with everyone else. Sixth forms, especially those that are more modest in size, are a perfect breeding ground for social segregation, which makes branching out at university all the more difficult. And when new friendships go wrong? University doesn't offer the mediation in disputes that still seems so necessary at sixth form.
Beyond the bubble
Another worry is the ever-looming threat of "independence". For me, this incredibly vague but oh-so-frequently used term conjures up mundane images of laundry, cooking and receipts - the domestic aspects of adult life that generally aren't acknowledged during A-levels.
Some sixth forms do provide cooking courses with the hope of preventing malnutrition among students caused by endless takeaways and 99p frozen pizzas. And my role as deputy head girl, while not directly translating into the ability to operate a washing machine, has instilled in me a sense of responsibility that (I hope) will go some way towards allowing me to adequately take care of myself away from home. But is it enough?
Put all these challenges together and I fear that some A-level students might find emerging from their sixth-form bubble a struggle. The sheltered and sometimes insular environment arguably sustains a kind of naivety in adolescents, a lack of worldly experience that makes the more diverse environment of university something of a shock.
But is it actually a sixth form's job to make its students university-ready in every sense? Parents can reasonably be burdened to some extent with imparting practical knowledge to their offspring, and I would also attribute a large degree of responsibility to myself; I believe independence is at its most complete when achieved though one's own efforts.
That said, the sixth form undoubtedly shares the duty of preparing its students for university in an academic sense, because the sixth form's raison d'tre is to educate. And it is undeniable that, because of the centrality of the sixth form to the life of many 18-year-olds, the obligation to teach students some degree of maturity and responsibility is inextricable from its role.
So, do sixth forms do this? In my experience, it is a mixed bag. I feel that my sixth-form education so far has definitely gone a long way towards giving me the confidence - academically and personally - to face the challenge of university. But I can't say that I anticipate entirely smooth sailing come October.
Sophie Fawley is a sixth-form student in Surrey starting university in October