Mayfield School Head of Sixth Form John Doy argues the importance of A-level study, both for grades and for the many experiences that equip students for life beyond school

The Education Secretary upset a few people this summer when she told sixth form students disappointed by their results that “they won’t ask you anything about your A-level grades in 10 years’ time”. As a successful (or even not so successful) student it must have been a bit of a kick in the teeth: if A levels don’t matter, what have the last two years all been about? As a Head of Sixth Form, it’s enough to bring on an existential crisis: if A levels don’t matter, what am I even for?

As we all know though, Sixth Form is genuinely about so much more than A levels. This, of course, doesn’t mean that they are unimportant, or indeed that employers will completely ignore them once you’re in your 30s, but, especially in all the furore around results day, perhaps now is a good time to ask ourselves, what does a good Sixth Form experience really look like?

Well, first, and with apologies to Gillian, A levels do matter. All Level 3 qualifications are an essential stepping-stone for students’ next stage of education, training or study. They form the core of the Sixth Form Curriculum and, whisper it, quite a lot of teachers and students quite enjoy them. What truly makes a Sixth Form experience special, however, is the freedom to choose all the other things that complement, or indeed provide a welcome relief from, your chosen subjects.

At Mayfield, we offer three strands of curriculum enhancement that we think equip students with the rich and varied diet they need to be ‘ready for the needs of the age’, to paraphrase our foundress Cornelia Connelly, a remarkably progressive Victorian nun.

Another of her guiding principles was ‘actions not words’ and it’s this maxim that gives shape to our volunteering programme. All girls in Year 12 are expected to take part in one hour a week of service activities, whether that’s listening to reading in the local primary school, working with our local outreach charity to support the elderly, or supporting the schools that use our school for retreats or confirmation support. Ghandi said “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”, and we aim for these experiences to be formative in the shaping of our students’ world view.

A levels do matter – they form the core of the Sixth Form Curriculum and, whisper it, quite a lot of teachers and students quite enjoy them”

We also run an enrichment programme where students can opt to do weekly slots on culinary skills, film making, leadership, event organising, and farming to name just four. These are opportunities to enhance CVs and personal statements, or simply to do something a bit different, learning new skills or developing new passions.

Our ECA programme sits alongside these two strands, offering cricket, football, hockey, netball tennis plus more niche clubs like Dungeons & Dragons, or DJing. We have a thriving Medical Society and Dissection Club, as well opportunities to learn coding, build robots and enter the CREST Awards, the British Science Association scheme for experimental work.

There are also weekly Life Skills lessons, with activities such as changing a tyre and self-defence, plus weekly sessions called Critical Religion where students are invited to ponder ethical and philosophical questions through the lens of faith and religion. Throw in the leadership opportunities afforded by our mentoring programme and prefect system and you can see that we are building a picture where perhaps the reason “they won’t ask you about your A level grades in 10 years’ time” is because you’ll be too busy talking about all the other things you learnt during your time in Sixth Form.

Mayfield School

Further reading: Are exams fit for purpose?