School sixth forms should take some lessons from FE colleges if we are to jointly produce a millennial generation that is tolerant, respectful, and socially aware enough to drive a healthy 21st-century democracy. The term "sixth form" is a nostalgic throwback to the 20th century. It hasn’t made any sense since "fifth years" became "Year 11s", whereas the etymological relationship between "college" and "partnership" reflects the inclusion and equality at the core of FE.
I used to shudder whenever the issue of lowering the voting age to 16 arose. I remembered the dreadful, overgrown child that I was at that age. It was the product of me sleepwalking into the sixth form of my unusually large state comprehensive. At its peak, there were almost 1,000 sixth formers there and the facilities and resources it had were the envy of all. We had a combined cadet force so big and well-equipped that the heroes of 90s teen novel Tomorrow, When the War Began seemed like hopeless amateurs to us. We had two cricket pavilions! Every year, we sent an impressive troupe to Oxbridge. But despite all those opportunities and advantages, my time there was unsatisfactory. Now, I find myself jealous of my current college’s students. Their experience at a large FE college seems to me more like a modern university campus. There’s vibrancy, diversity and a sense of belonging that I haven’t seen anywhere else. It’s very different to the environment I was in at their age.
College for human beings
In my school sixth form, the same social hierarchies and prejudices had remained intact since we were 11 years old. Familiarity breeds contempt – and after five years of perfecting the art form of menacing each other, it was madness that we continued with more of the same. I’ve seen this more recently, as well. If the dynamics inherited from a lower school aren’t challenged immediately in Year 12, you can end up with a culture like the back of the minibus on the way to an under-13 rugby fixture.
I know that my own personality was stuck in a holding pattern in my sixth form, where I couldn’t even admit to being into the Star Wars expanded universe. I can only imagine how awful it is to wrestle with issues of gender or sexuality while trapped in what can feel like a small, stagnating pond. Walking around the college I now teach in, I see students comfortable in their own skin. It’s not just the vulnerable students, either. Those who used to be the "big fish" at school can also start fresh, putting aside the crushing obligation of maintaining their image and instead focus on learning and developing as human beings.
Something that FE does really well is inclusion. My own school corralled learners onto its sixth-form courses with little care for whether they were suitable. At that time, taking English language at A level, rather than literature, was a barrier if you wanted to do the latter at university – but nobody told me that until I was at the point of writing applications and vainly leafing through a hundred prospectuses. My school discarded the least academic at the end of Year 11, but then I’ve worked in others where the opposite is true and the target demographic are those so insecure they’ve become institutionalised. Both strategies are cynical. I’m endlessly impressed by the level of support my college offers, from the neediest New Directions learners through to our Oxbridge contingent. There really is something for everyone.
Surrounded by the same, too-familiar faces that I had, in some cases, spent several thousand hours with already, it was hard to do anything new at my sixth form: Read a new kind of book. Make some new friends. Think something new.
When I eventually escaped to university, the very first person I met asked me if I liked folk music.
I laughed. “You mean, like Morris dancing?”
He didn’t. He let me borrow some Bob Dylan to start with and I hurriedly discarded the vapid MiniDisc mixes I’d been listening to for years. It felt like I had a lot of catching up to do, but it needn’t have been like that.
In their new environment, college students are emancipated to be geeks about whatever their passions – and they find new, like-minded friends to share it with, creating those fabled "learning communities". Experimentation is easy and fun because you aren’t surrounded by everyone who remembers you turning up with a briefcase one time five years ago, or the Year 9 disco where that thing happened, so you’re not a prisoner of one fixed, commonly-held, stifling "idea" of "you".
There are many excellent, thriving, forward-looking sixth forms. Many others though are built on the inertia of students who, like myself, weren’t imaginative enough to move on. They rely on the sentimental goodwill of policymakers who mostly attended sixth forms themselves. A bright future relies on us all striving to stimulate the young minds in our care. My students at college seem more socially aware than I ever was, rubbing shoulders with others from different backgrounds, races, religions. Their views vary so widely they can’t lazily float in the safety of an unchallenged bubble. Consequently, they learn to recognise, if not necessarily inhabit, the middle ground. There’s a maturity that comes with any decision to leave the familiar and go somewhere new. I see it in the way they carry themselves inside and outside of the classroom. I am proud queueing with them for a burger or a coffee – and I would be very proud to queue with these young adults at a polling station.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720