Updated: Sep 21, 2021
In some cases, not much thought is given to a teen’s choices at 16 – they’ll stay in the same school and take qualifications in whatever that school offers at sixth form. For many students, that’s a perfect choice and sets them up for the future, but for others it isn’t ideal and they would do better considering other alternatives. Things to think about are the subjects they’d like to study, the type of qualification they’d like to obtain, where to study and whether they’d prefer to learn while working or without working. Read on for tips on what might be best for your teen once they finish their GCSE years. If you’d like to know all their options after GCSE, click here to see The Parents' Guide to Post-16 Options – Full edition.
If your child thinks they know what they want to do when they leave school at 18, this may influence their choices. For example, someone who hopes to train as a dentist will need to take the sciences at sixth form.
What are the rules for 16 year olds living in England and Wales?
All 16 year olds must undertake further education until they are 18. This doesn’t mean they have to stay on at school or go to college, they can get a job with a training element to it, but they cannot work full-time without some training. Their options are to take academic qualifications, such as A levels, BTECs, IB or T Levels or take vocational qualifications, such as an apprenticeship or job with training.
If they’ve struggled to get good results at GCSE, they can do an internship or traineeships to get the experience to progress.
Helping your teen choose what to study after their GCSEs:
For some teens the decision on what to study after their GCSEs will be fairly straightforward. If they know what they want to do when they leave school at 18, this may influence their choices. For example, someone who hopes to train as a dentist will need to take the sciences at sixth form or someone that wants to go into IT may want to take digital business services. Alternatively, if they know what they enjoy they may decide to continue similar studies in greater depth – for example, someone that loves languages may want to study French, German and Spanish.
For others, narrowing their subject choices may prove trickier, especially if they don’t have a firm idea of what they want to do (and may not even know whether they hope to progress to further education once they're 18). In these cases, it may be a good idea for your teen to make choices which give them some experience in lots of areas so they can find out more about what they do like rather than limiting their options by taking similar subjects. Additionally, they may want to consider the type of qualification they’d most enjoy studying and then decide what subject they will study based on what’s on offer for that qualification type.
What type of qualification gives them the best chance of future success?
Sixth form qualifications fall into two categories: academic or vocational. Academic qualifications are subject focused and largely theoretical, whilst vocational qualifications are usually more hands-on and pertain to industry and the world of work. The best known qualifications are A levels and BTEC, because most schools with sixth forms offer both these options. However, there are other alternatives that could well be a better fit for your teen.
Studied at school or college:
Baccalaureates (IB) – only offered by a small number of schools
T Levels (England only, usually offered by colleges not schools)
Studied through work (with release to an educational centre for the learning element)
Technical qualifications (such as NVQs Tech Bac or City and Guilds)
The better grades your teen achieves at sixth form, the more options that will be available to them. They’re likely to improve their outcomes when they’re studying both something they enjoy learning that is presented in a way that appeals to them. In broad terms, those who like coursework and prefer “doing” will enjoy taking BTECs, T Levels or apprenticeships. Students that prefer listening and taking exams will enjoy the traditional A level or IB approach.
All of the above options provide routes to higher education after sixth form, so your teen will not be closing down their chance of further study by taking any one of them. However, whilst most universities base entry requirements on UCAS points, some specify certain criteria (i.e. a certain number of UCAS points, including 2 A levels). If your teen has a specific course or university they hope to start after sixth form, they should check entry requirements before choosing what to study at sixth form.
If your teen has their heart set on a career choice but little aptitude for the subjects needed to progress towards it, vocational courses can be helpful. Someone that wants to go into business could avoid a maths-heavy Economics A level and choose to take a BTEC in Business Studies or a T Level in Business Services instead. Alternatively, they may choose to start an apprenticeship in an industry area they are interested in (such as hotels and leisure) and work towards their goal from a different angle.
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Where to study after GCSEs – the pros and cons:
It may seem an easy decision to continue studies at their current school; however, this is not always the best option and is sometimes not possible. Some schools may not offer the subject or qualification choices your teen wants to study, some schools don’t have a sixth form, some schools have a joint sixth form (which your teen may not like if they’re used to a single sex school) and some students are just desperate to leave the school environment. It is important that your thoughts and feelings are taken into consideration when making the decision about “what next”, but remember, the choice should ultimately be your teen’s.
Continuing at the same school
There can be lots of benefits for your teen: they know the staff, they will have friends there and they are familiar with journey times and routes. It’s also nice for them to be role models to younger pupils and this, combined with the familiar environment, can help build self-confidence. In most cases, sixth forms are smaller than colleges and provide more support. For students with special educational needs, they know what support is provided and whether their needs are met (support can vary widely from one institution to another). However, because schools tend to be smaller, they are unlikely to have as many subject choices or vocational courses as colleges and students need to watch out about becoming complacent by being the “big fish in a small pond”.
Applying to sixth form in another school
Providing the school is offering the right subject and course options for your teen, this can be a good compromise between staying at the same school or going to college. The challenge of meeting new teachers, new friends and working in a different atmosphere with a different daily journey still exists, but the smaller numbers, greater guidance and nurturing environment also applies. It can prove a good way for your teen to start to take control of their own lives, increase confidence and improve communications without changing everything at once. Depending on GCSE results, moving schools can provide the opportunity of going to a more academic school or one that has greater focus on co-curricular interests that may provide job opportunities in the future (such as rowing, music, drama etc). A fresh environment can inspire fresh ideas.
Going to college
The great thing about colleges is that that they have a huge range of academic and vocational courses to study, so there will be plenty of choice. Also, all their focus is on the 16-19 age-range so all facilities and additional offerings are aimed at the same age group, unlike schools who are caring for students of many different ages, sometimes as young as early years. Teachers and lecturers will all be experts in their specialist subjects for the sixth form age range.
Colleges tend to be larger and less personal than school sixth forms; the experience is much closer to life at university. This is ideal for students who are disciplined at managing their own studies and can meet deadlines on their own, but students that need nudging, coaxing and reminding are less likely to do well. Of course, learning these skills is important regardless of whether they want to go onto university or start work after sixth form, but some sixteen-year-olds need a little more guidance than others. The question is whether your teen will do well with new teachers to get to know, a new environment and, in most cases, a whole new set of friends to make. If they like the challenge of stretching beyond their comfort-zone, it can be a great steppingstone from school to university but if they are reserved, it could be over-whelming.
Independent learning providers
It doesn’t have to be a choice of school or college. There are independent organisations that offer entry level courses and employability training for young people who want to get a qualification or learn the skills to help find a job.
If they are taking vocational learning, such as an apprenticeship, the learning location will be chosen by their employer, who will have an arrangement with a local school, college or other education provider. They will not be able to influence this.
Your teen’s more likely to be successful at what they’re good at and enjoy
To leave you with a final though, almost all of us tend to be better at things we enjoy than things we don’t. If your teen has a natural passion for certain subjects, they will likely make good sixth form choices. Don’t forget, your teen will need to spend a lot of time on each sixth form option they select (much more than they did at GCSE), so it’s a good idea that they have an interest in the subjects they study (rather than studying them to please you).
GCSE results can be a good indicator of their aptitude, but if they have not already studied the subjects at GCSE, don’t let that put them off choosing something new. They can always speak to their teacher to get advice on new subjects.
Do bear in mind whether your teen excels in practical studies or theoretical studies. This can be a big influencer in qualification and subject choices.
Find out more
If you’d like to know more about your child’s options at 16 and things you should help them consider when making decisions about their next steps, read our specialist guide: The Parent’s Guide to Post 16 options.
We always love to hear from you, so do let us know if this article was helpful and what choices your teen made in the end.
Stay safe and keep happy,
Vanessa Green - Vanessa@theparentsguideto.co.uk