Schools with sixth forms do not perform better than those without, says new research

Pupil achievements are identical or very similar in schools without sixth forms, once pupils' backgrounds are accounted for

Jonathan Owen

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The widely-held belief that pupils at schools with sixth forms perform better is not true, but they are far more likely to continue their education down the academic route, according to new research released today.

Although secondary schools with sixth forms have better GCSE results than those without sixth forms, this is because they “tend to have more able, affluent pupils and are more likely to be selective”. Once such factors are taken into account, “there is very little difference in GCSE performance between schools that have a sixth form and those that don't” states the research by education data analysts SchoolDash.

Its examination of government data reveals that, when differences in pupil intake are taken into account, the differences in GCSE performance are negligible. The average Attainment 8 score of a school with a sixth form is 47.5 – compared to 44.4 for those without. This equates to around three grades per pupil. However, the gap is almost eliminated once differences in pupil intake have been accounted for – with schools with sixth forms scoring an average of 44.5.

Dr Timo Hannay, founder of SchoolDash and author of the new research, says: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, having a sixth form has no effect on GCSE performance…but it has a very big impact on the future educational paths followed by these students.”

Sixth form or college?

For pupils at schools with a sixth form are much more likely to go to a sixth form rather than a further education college, according to the analysis of data from 3,118 mainstream state secondary schools in England.

More than half (51 per cent) of pupils at schools with sixth forms go on to study at a sixth form, with just 37 per cent opting to go to an FE college. In contrast, only 38 per cent of pupils at schools without sixth forms choose to continue their studies at a sixth form while 49 per cent go to FE college.

It argues that the ways in which schools are set up influence the future choices of pupils. Some pupils who already know that they “are destined for an academic route” before leaving primary school may be “preferentially selecting secondary schools with sixth forms”. But the research says: “it seems more likely that the structures of the secondary schools themselves are influencing subsequent pupil choice”.

It adds: “This would imply that if all secondary schools had a sixth form then up to 20,000 more pupils each year might choose that route over an FE college. Conversely, separating all sixth forms from secondary schools could result in up to 50,000 more pupils going to FE colleges”.

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