What are the differences between a further education college and a sixth form?

Basic guide written by Jade Archer, Outreach Assistant, Make Happen 

There are roughly 90 school sixth forms, more than 200 colleges, and around 50 sixth form colleges to currently choose to study at throughout the UK.



What do these terms actually mean?

In the UK there are three types of institutions that provide further education (FE):

  1. school sixth forms
  2. sixth form colleges
  3. further education colleges

Sixth forms offer a variety of A-level and BTEC qualifications and are attached to a secondary school, which is why they are often referred to as school sixth forms.

Sixth form colleges offer the same provision as a school sixth form however, they are separate from secondary schools. Unlike the latter, Further Education (FE) colleges offer a much wider variety of courses including access courses, higher education-level diplomas and often, bachelor’s degrees.

Colleges may also offer apprenticeships and other community provision. So, one way to think about it is that FE colleges are on one end of the spectrum and school sixth forms are on the other, with sixth form colleges being the middle ground.

What the sixth form or college environment is like

School sixth forms tend to be more formal places, as the site is often shared with younger students in years 7 to 13. The learning environment in a school sixth form can therefore already be very familiar to you, particularly if you’ve stayed on at the same place where you did your GCSEs. Teachers within a school sixth form may request that the same level of formality is retained in school, and students may still address their teachers as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’.

FE colleges provide a different learning environment to what you were used to at school. In FE colleges there are no students below the age of 16, and because they’re open to the community, there tend to be many students who are older than 16-19 studying there. Some FE colleges even have classes later in the evening to try and suit all learners.

The environment within an FE college is generally more adult-like, where students take responsibility for themselves and their learning. FE colleges tend to be slightly more relaxed when comparing them with school sixth forms, and students usually address their teachers on a first name basis.

On the other hand, sixth form colleges can be somewhat in between a typical FE college and a school sixth form. Sixth form colleges are typically more informal than school sixth forms and they often provide a wider range of courses when compared to them too. However, they are similar to school sixth forms in the way that only students aged 16 to 19 can study there.

When looking at the size of each type of institution, FE colleges and sixth form colleges tend to be larger than school sixth forms.

Your peer group

As previously mentioned, school sixth forms and sixth form colleges provide academic education to students who are between the ages of 16 and 19. On the contrary, FE colleges provide academic and vocational education to anyone above the age of 16 who wishes to study there. Therefore, the students around you will vary depending on the type of FE institution that you choose to study at.

Colleges may tend to be more informal, or more relaxed, but student work is more independent, and students must be self-sufficient in order to progress. At a college, you tend to meet students who are on a range of different courses which could mean that your timetables could be completely opposite, and you may only see each other two days a week.

Available courses

One of the first things you may notice when searching FE options is that most FE colleges offer a wider range of courses when compared to school sixth forms and sixth form colleges.

Most colleges offer A-levels, similar to school sixth forms, but they also offer other qualifications at a variety of levels including vocational courses; here is a brief rundown of the levels of qualifications that are typically available at most colleges:

  • Level 1: These qualifications are equivalent to GCSEs grades 3, 2 and 1 (D, E, F & G). They are basic qualifications that build confidence and provide students with essential and functional skills. Level 1 qualifications can also provide students with an introduction to a subject or area of work.
  • Level 2: These qualifications can provide students with a deeper understanding of a subject or area of work and are roughly equivalent to GCSEs grades 9 to 4 (A*-C).
  • Level 3: These qualifications include AS and A-levels, NVQ Level 3s, BTEC Nationals and so on. This level of qualification is required for entry into a university and employers can look for this level qualification in applicants when hiring for a technical or supervisory role.
  • Level 4 to 8: These levels can also be available in a college however they are classed as Higher Education (HE) qualifications rather than FE qualifications. Qualifications at this level can include Foundation degrees, Honours degrees and Postgraduate degrees or other professional qualifications.

School sixth forms tend to offer an extensive list of A-level qualifications for students to choose from; ranging from Modern Languages to Chemistry. Students are usually required to pick 3 A-levels and one AS-level with the choice of carrying on their AS to A-levels. AS-levels are only studied for the duration of one year, whereas A-levels are studied over the course of two years. Sixth form colleges typically offer a wider range of study options than a sixth form, but these options can vary by institution.

Timetable and term time differences

Whilst studying at school in the UK, students aren’t usually assigned free time or study time in their timetables. So, one of the first things that you may notice when looking at FE options is that timetables can vary. When studying at FE level, students are given more free periods, but the restrictions on these free periods depend on the institution itself.

FE colleges typically offer students several different study options including part-time, distance learning and full-time as well as a variety of qualification types, including academic and vocational courses; timetables for each option would look very different. Term times can also vary depending on the course and which study route you choose. For more vocational courses, such as catering and hairdressing, there is often the option of doing work placements which usually occur one day a week.

Students may find that, even on a full-time timetable at an FE college, they have several free periods in between classes, they may even have a whole day free, or be required to attend college from 8.30am to 5pm, three days a week. Your term times and weekly timetable will vary a lot depending on the qualification type that you want to study, the study route you choose, and the type of assessment that your course includes; for qualifications that require exams, your exam timetable may determine when you finish your course.

For example, if you were studying at FE level and your last exam was on 3rd May, then this could be your last day for that academic year. Sensible students would use that free time to complete coursework, assignments or revise.

School sixth forms and sixth form colleges usually offer more academic courses such as A-level Sociology and BTEC Health and Social Care. Your timetables will vary depending on what subjects you decided to study, and how many you decided to study. It is possible to start Year 12 studying four different subjects at AS-level, then you decide whether to continue with all four subjects into Year 13 as A levels or whether you drop one. The decision to drop a subject when reaching Year 13 may impact your timetable in a way that may allow you to have more free periods. School sixth form and sixth form college students usually have free periods, or even entire days free, throughout their two years of studying.

The restrictions on these free periods vary greatly, depending on the individual institutions’ rules and regulations. Sixth form colleges can tend to be more lenient with these free periods as there aren’t younger, more impressionable, students around to observe. The term ‘lenient’ in this case refers to students spending their free time whichever way they like, with no restrictions on how or where they can do this. School sixth forms can sometimes have stricter rules to follow line with the school that they’re a part of.

For example, a school sixth form may say that all free periods are spent on site, with the only exception being lunch time where sixth form students can leave the site and walk to the close amenities. Other school sixth forms may urge their students to stay in designated areas, or attend extra-curriculum activities, but it is solely down to the institution itself.

The location

In general, FE colleges and sixth form colleges tend to be located in the middle of town or city centres. Their location, and the variety of courses they offer, make them more accessible to the wider community. Several students opt to travel further in order to study at an FE college because of the wide range of opportunities and courses that they offer.

This central location means that they are often next to bus and railway stations, as well as all the town centre amenities. On the other hand, where school sixth forms are attached to secondary schools, they are often more localised and can be found throughout villages, towns and cities. Students who attend school sixth forms are usually students who previously studied at the secondary school attached, or one that is close by. Students who attend secondary school at the institution that they also want to study their FE qualifications still need to formally apply for their place, like any other student.

One thing to remember…

There is no wrong or right answer when it comes to deciding where to go next; every decision you make is going to be individual to you.

There are so many options to choose from, and it can be very daunting at first for anyone in your position. Most FE colleges and sixth form colleges have a dedicated careers team that is there to support, advise and guide you throughout your studies there – so make sure you check out the help available to you. School sixth forms don’t tend to have an entire team dedicated to careers, but your teachers and support staff can always offer you guidance.

Just remember to decide your next step by looking at what is right for you. It may help you to ask for support or advice from the people you are closest to such as your family and friends but remember the teachers and careers team from your school or college can also guide and support you.

If you’re thinking about completing a Higher and Degree apprenticeship, why not check out this video?