So, the exams are over, the ridiculously long (but well deserved!) holiday is underway, and GCSE results are either on their way or just sinking in. But you're not going back to school as you know it this time. Sixth form presents lots of new challenges (and some irritatingly familiar ones too). You may have heard rumours about sixth form, or biased accounts from teachers, and we know nothing really beats first-hand experience, but here's a little bit about what it's like being in sixth form from a student's perspective.
You can also read a day in the life guides of sixth form students, or see the sorts of things that current students would have liked to know before starting further education. Click here to see what to take with you on your first day of sixth form.
Funny, isn't it? You've spent the last 11 years of your life building up to these mystical things called GCSEs, and now they're gone. Be happy or be sad with your GCSE results; two weeks into term you'll have asked everyone ten times over what they got, got bored, and forgotten you or anyone else ever took them. A new, uglier beast called the A-level has reared its head, and you need to be prepared to deal with it when it comes.
A-levels are indisputably much harder than GCSEs; while I hate to nag slightly, organisation and hard work in school really do pay off, especially when you have five times the material to catch up on, and doing the material in school will guarantee you an easier life out of school. Not easy, mind, but easier. No one said you were going to cruise through your A-levels, and the chances are you won't. In primary school you'd have complained if you got more than 15 minutes' reading homework a night, but at GCSE you were doing maybe two hours a night. Well, at A-level you might have to do more; or, alternatively, the same amount, but of much harder work. And don't forget that missing a day in school might mean missing the same number of lessons, but will almost certainly mean missing twice as much work. Do go into sixth form with an open mind, and don't complain if you get more homework or irregular homework.
The important thing, though, is not to let all of this scare you! Tens of thousands of candidates sit their A-levels every year and come out with more than they started with; most are pleased with their grades, and the ones that aren't are often (though not always) the ones that didn't work hard enough. If they can do it, so can you.
At GCSE things were easy. But you still probably did things wrong. Never had the right stationery in lessons, or enough paper, or the right books; forgot your homework, lost handouts, didn't understand notes. Take heed of all this and get it right this time. Get the right stationery, make sure you always have spare paper (not just enough paper, spare paper!). You'll be doing fewer subjects too, and the chances are you'll have at least one lesson of each every day - bring a bag sufficiently large to carry all your books home every night and back to school the next day, because a lot of the time you'll have to. No excuses for not having the right books. Unless your teachers specifically tell you otherwise, you'll probably need near enough every book every day.
Buy a planner, or even a small diary, and write down what your homework is for each day. How you do this is irrelevant, as long as it works for you. I found simply giving a few short words to remind me of each piece of homework in bullet point form, with the date it had to be handed in, more than sufficient; some people find it handy to write the homework under the day it's due in and colour-code it according to subject, while writing rather long descriptions of notes that will be helpful to the homework, or references in their textbook/notebook. Do whatever you feel comfortable with. If the bullet point approach works for you, you might need nothing more than a tiny jotter all year; if you prefer to have it all neatly laid out and colour-coded and organised, buy a large diary which gives you enough space. Carry this around with you all the time too.
Don't lose handouts. Get some sort of filing system in place. Again, some people find it sufficient to stuff paper into their bags arbitrarily. I went the other way on this one, and found it very useful to have a ring binder with eight different plastic wallets in - one for each teacher - and keep my handouts and paper in that. Every Friday, I would empty these wallets (except for sheets I knew I needed the next week) into paper folders which I kept at home, and as long as I made sure I didn't just stuff papers in in random places, the sheets then automatically fell into date order, organised by subject and teacher. It's not a lot of work to spend an extra 10 minutes every weekend filing, and it's certainly no extra work in school. Consider some sort of decent filing system, because you might just need it, especially if 18 of your periods a week are maths, as mine were!
If you occasionally find you don't understand your notes, then do ask a teacher or a friend. Don't be ashamed. These are your qualifications, not anyone else's, and staying back a year won't be any fun while all your mates are going to uni and you're resitting the lower sixth.
Well, the most obvious thing that I haven't mentioned yet is that you're probably only studying four or five subjects. Be sure to attach your jaw firmly to the rest of your skull as you look at your timetable for the first time - that varied timetable I once had was now pretty much just maths, with the odd little break dotted around the place. It's certainly a culture clash seeing the same teachers every day, but you get used to it, and it can actually be very useful, because if there's something you don't understand on a Thursday, you don't have to wait till the Tuesday to catch up, you can simply ask the day after. You might even find you have two lessons on the same day with the same teacher but split up, or that you have triple chemistry on a Monday morning. It sounds horrible, but you begin to come to terms with it sooner or later.
Your select few A-level subjects will hopefully be subjects you enjoy, and consequently you (and your peers) should be a lot more relaxed in class and enjoy the work a lot more (and yes, you are allowed to enjoy French and still groan at French homework - we all do!). This should make you overall more motivated and ensure that you do your best in your chosen subjects, but if you're finding it difficult, talk to your teacher or tutor. They should always be there to help.
Your lessons might not turn out to be the slog you envisage them to be. Lessons are actually normally quite relaxed, depending on your teacher. As you spend a lot more time with them and in smaller groups (fewer subjects means fewer people per subject), you'll all get to know each other and might even become friends (gasp!) with your teachers. Maybe not all of them; a certain degree of professionalism is maintained, and there's always the odd person you don't get on with in any context.
Oh yeah - and be prepared for lessons to go on slightly into break or lunch time. And don't complain when they do. It's all part of being adults cooperating with fellow adults not to have a mini tantrum if your teacher hasn't finished when the bell goes. It's to be expected that they'll reciprocate that respect if you have to turn up a couple of minutes late one day because you couldn't find your stuff or some equally legitimate reason.
How do they work?
Sixth form life
Depending on your sixth, you may have some free periods. At posher places, it might be a few a week and supervised, elsewhere you could be looking at eleven or so hours a week alone, when you reach A2. It's up to you whether you work or not; I never worked in mine unless I had homework due in for a lesson later that day that I'd forgotten about (oops). If the atmosphere in your sixth form centre / common room / library / wherever simply isn't conducive to work, don't feel compelled to. Also, don't count on having those free periods. Teachers might want to see you, or you might have to use them for other things than what you'd planned. It might occasionally work the other way though - I've occasionally gained a free period or two in the past because a teacher was off, and set us work that was to be combined classwork and homework, and after triple maths it's not always quite that easy to force yourself to have to do work you don't need to do yet! Do allow yourself this time to do whatever you want if you're having a particularly stressful day, and don't feel like you have to commit yourself to doing work.
Oh and don't get distracted by the internet if you are doing work as you can waste a lot of time doing this. If you want to do work then make sure you're not around people who will distract you.
"Freedom is an illusion..." etc. etc. etc.
You do get a certain degree more freedom in sixth form. It is the small minority, however, who are allowed to turn up and hand in their work simply whenever they want. You'll find this freedom in the form of slightly relaxed rules, maybe better facilities, being treated more individually than previously. Also, depending on your school, you may be allowed to use the car park when coming to school as soon as you're allowed to drive, or you may simply be allowed off the school grounds as you're old enough to look after yourself, while younger people might not be. But there are still rules. Don't come into school drunk or smoking, no matter how legal it might be. They won't appreciate it, and liberties are as easily taken away as they are given.
Yes, that's right. You're a big boy/girl now. Mummy and daddy aren't responsible for your education, the government isn't responsible for your education, your friends aren't responsible for your education, and believe it or not, to a large extent, your teachers aren't responsible for your education. You're on your own. This has advantages and disadvantages. The obvious disadvantage is "ugh, responsibility!"; if you fail your A-levels you can't blame it on someone else, it's not your teacher's fault for not getting to chapter 8 in the book, it's your fault for not checking your exam board syllabus and making sure you were familiar with everything in it. If you don't get to school one day, the response "my parents didn't drive me so I stayed in bed" won't work. If you're caught chucking pencils across the room, the excuse "he did it first" is a really quite poor one. This is the real world. While sixth form might be cushy in some ways, it means you're no longer allowed to be a baby - you are in charge of your life, because it's your life, including your education and your conduct around others, no one else.
Advantages, of course, are the increased degree of freedom and perhaps enhanced feelings of self-worth and satisfaction. Self-explanatory.
Why not discuss the move to Sixth Form or College in the "Moving from School to College" thread?
For more general chat about Sixth Form and college, try the 'General Secondary School, Sixth Form and FE College Discussion' forum.
Need to move schools after your AS's? Why not read 'Changing schools at the end of AS' to help you.