'Sixth-formers'? The name is 30 years out of date

It's decades since we last referred to 'first years' – so let's find a new term for 'sixth-formers', says Stephen Petty

Stephen Petty

Hit for sixth: The term 'sixth-formers' is out of date, says Stephen Petty. Here he argues that we should now refer to them as 'Pres' - despite the term being linked to underage cocktail drinking

A startling number of colleagues were not even born when “first years” at secondary school were renamed “Year 7s”, “second years” became “Year 8s” and so on. 

And yet, as we now approach the 30th anniversary of that change, we still mysteriously refer to Year 12s and 13s as “sixth-formers”. 

I know that any new naming system can take a little while to bed in, but the time has surely come for us to stop calling them that. The only justification I ever hear for its widespread survival is that “nobody can think of a better name for them”. 

Survival of the 'sixth-form'

Well, I think most of us could easily think of a better name. My own suggestion, for instance, would be to call them the “Pres”.  

Seems so obvious, really. Anyone at all familiar with the world of Year 12s and 13s will appreciate the sheer double-shot, extra-strength aptness of such a name. 

First and foremost, it depicts the portentous stage they have all reached in their school or college life, whether pre-university, pre-apprenticeship, pre-job or pre-whatever.

Secondly, the name is, of course, an affectionate nod towards a now customary social ritual in their partying lives today. As in, “We’re all meeting at Millie’s house for pres." 

But the case for now calling them “Pres” doesn’t end there. Each letter of “Pre” would also represent one of the three main categories of student among their number: “players”, “rocks” and “eagles”. Very helpful for identifying and working on those varying young mindsets.

Players, rocks and eagles

"Players" are so-called because they are merely in role as a student, rather than actually being one. They can deliver very well-rehearsed lines (“Sorry, I didn’t realise the homework was due in today”, "Sorry I missed the lesson, my alarm didn’t go off", etc), but that’s about it. They were no doubt shepherded towards some decent GCSE grades, but that supportive herding is partly their undoing now.

In most cases, they are still lovely, delightful people, who genuinely do want to achieve. So it’s all about changing that player mindset and turning them into "rocks". 

"Rocks" are much more dependable in terms of attitude, attendance, homework, phone-abstinence and overall engagement with study. 

Not all "rocks" are the same, of course, but that very name then enables schools to develop two or three sub-classifications (gold, silver, bronze?), and for all parties concerned to assess and discuss where they are at present and how best to move on. 

"Eagles": these are, of course, the students who then take off and soar gloriously above those "rocks". Bit corny, I know, but we go with it because I think this would be a great aspirational image for those "rocks" to have in mind. 

"Eagles" are those awesome students who actually do all those extra things that we recommend that they do: further reading, ongoing revision, practising past exam questions, listening to relevant podcasts and so on. Typically, they are also fully involved in a range of life-enriching commitments in and outside school, too. And they are usually as much a part of those “pres” as anyone else. 

Understanding our students 

So, come on! The name "Pres" not only wins for aptness, but also captures the essence of what we and they should be all about, in terms of identifying where people are and where they could be.

"Players", "rocks" and "eagles" – surely we and the students could all understand and respond well to such terms? 

Maybe a name so closely linked to underage cocktail-drinking would struggle to receive official approval, but it surely has a lot more going for it than "sixth-formers"? 

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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