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In this article, written for the 2012 edition of the First Eleven Schools Guide, James Wardrobe describes the origins of independent sixth form colleges and the benefits they offer university-bound students: good course choice, small classes and a strong focus on examination technique.

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Origins of sixth form colleges

Independent sixth form colleges in the UK, often still referred to as tutorial colleges, have a rich and varied history. For example, Davies's College, founded in 1927, and DLD College, starting in 1931 first opened their doors to provide tutoring for Oxbridge, the Armed Services and Colonial Service entrance exams. After the Second World War the tutorial colleges specialised in A-level and 0-level teaching, and often still retained the rather derogatory nickname of "crammers", a term first used over 100 years ago in a time when schools didn't focus on exams at all. Times have changed, however, and their modern versions, the Independent Sixth Form Colleges, are quite different in almost every respect, although most stress the exam-orientated nature of their courses and all pride themselves on their small teaching groups. At a rough estimate, there are currently over 100 such colleges in the UK, located nationwide from Exeter to Edinburgh. Most are situated in large towns and cities, though there are also a number of successful boarding colleges in the countryside.

Wide choice of subjects and courses

The value of Independent sixth form colleges over a school's sixth form lies in the wider range of choice of subjects and much greater flexibility of subject combinations. Most colleges allow students to pick a varied combination of subjects and there are commonly over 40 different AS and A-level subjects to choose from. If you want to take an unusual package such as Accounting, Psychology and History, this will be a more feasible possibility in a college than in a school sixth form timetable. If you want to join a college for the second year of A level, not only will you find many colleges which can provide the right A2 courses, but most will allow you to combine A2 courses with a new AS level or even a subject in which you cover both the AS and A2 during the year. So, apart from the variety of subjects, different types and lengths of A-level course are also available. At colleges such as MPW, Ashbourne, Collingham or Lansdowne (all in London), you will find standard two-year courses, final-year (ie second year) courses, one-year courses (covering AS and A2 modules) and retake courses.

Although the majority of students will be studying A levels, most colleges run equally flexible GCSE courses, usually offering subjects such as Photography as well as all the mainstream ones. As well as one-year courses, two-year GCSE courses for Year 10 pupils are also available at those colleges, which are registered as schools by Ofsted

Focus on good teaching and support

The best colleges have experienced teachers who are A-level subject specialists. They are often examiners for the syllabuses they reach They have the advantage of being able to specialise in their subject at a particular level for a particular exam syllabus throughout their whole teaching timetable, unburdened by any lower school teaching requirements. Small class sizes are another standard feature The informal, relaxed nature of the small-group environment enables the teacher to establish quickly and maintain a very productive working relationship with the student, with close supervision of work and plenty of individual attention, encouragement and advice.

Academic and pastoral support nowadays is a high priority for these colleges. Their academic advisors keep up-to-date on the latest requirements of university admissions departments and will make sure that you receive plenty of support in completing your UCAS form as effectively as possible.

Extending student choice

Students choose sixth form colleges in the independent sector for diverse reasons, but seem united by their ambition to get the best education they can before they move on to university.

There has certainly been a growth in recent years of students following traditional two year A-level courses at these colleges. Some others make a fresh start for their upper sixth year. According to the Council for Independent Education (CIFE), a national association representing most of the best sixth form colleges, roughly 10% of the annual intake of their member colleges are students who have spent their lower sixth year in another school. Appropriate courses are available to them, which can prove ideal in revitalising a student's prospects. Famously these colleges are the specialists in retake courses, both one-term and one-year, and the best have a remarkably consistent record for impressive grade improvement Some colleges have discovered a small but growing trend for IB students to come and "retake" their subjects as A levels in one year.

Over recent years independent VI Form colleges have established themselves as reliable providers of pre-university education. If you are a secondary school pupil who needs a fresh start, this type of college is ideally equipped to provide it.