Sixth Form life is changing to suit priorities of students in the 16+ age group. Schools are responding with innovations in spaces, learning opportunities and ambiance. Absolutely Education speaks to two London schools

Sixth form used to be more of the same, only harder. There was the odd concession, such as no formal uniform, a common room where you could culture mould in unwashed coffee cups and a general easing of the ‘eyes front’ classroom approach. Something truly radical and exciting has happened in recent years, as schools respond to both changing career possibilities and Gen Z’s needs and future study and life ambitions.

At Emanuel School in Battersea, London, the newly extended Sixth Form Centre, reflects increased student numbers over the past five years. But there’s a bigger evolution, says Head of Sixth Form Julia Johnson. “We seek to cater to the interests and passions of this diverse, bright and ambitious group of young people.” The new building, opened in October 2022, is an airy three-storey space overlooking the playing fields. It’s for the sole use of sixth formers, which matters a lot. Julia Johnson describes it as “an important privilege”.

“Emanuel sixth formers have enjoyed putting forward bids for items to enhance their space, from the easily achieved (pot plants) to rather less practical (full-size snooker table)”

She says much thought went into the design of spaces, with a central mission to ensure they supported Emanuel’s ethos of a broad and varied education to equip students for life and leadership. Spaces facilitate the running of the Emanuel Award programme – something all students participate in. There’s a lecture space for talks by students and visiting speakers, quiet areas for private study, seminar spaces in which groups hold meetings. The building also houses key staff offices, including the Director of Higher Education and Head of Careers and Employability.

Unique touches include a huge abstract mural in the café painted by a recent leaver. “This embodies for me the importance of our students having ownership of the space,” says Julia Johnson. Students were closely involved during redevelopment and afterwards, with the sixth form council meeting staff regularly to provide feedback on décor and layout of furniture. They also worked to develop a code of conduct for all who use the space. “Students have also enjoyed putting forward bids for items to enhance their enjoyment of the space, from the easily achieved (pot plants and a board games corner) to the rather less practical (darts boards and a full-size snooker table),” says Julia Johnson.

Sixth Form 2:0 – how schools are adapting 16+ education
Social spaces and the right environment to support wellbeing are seen as critical at Emanuel School (above and top)

She says students were clear about the places they wanted, with comfort and quiet top of the agenda, along with space for collaboration. Resulting designs such as the cushioned study booths perfect for four students have proved very popular, as have the ‘boardroom’ type tables and portable flip charts and whiteboards. “These were in constant use as the A levels approached and students wanted to explain concepts and test each other during their revision time.” It goes without saying that the new building has lots of plug sockets and excellent wireless connectivity to enable charging and online working.

Light and location are both critical and, informed by the World Health Organization’s 2021 findings on how green space positively impacts mental health. Each floor has sofas positioned beside the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the playing fields and Wandsworth Common beyond. The café is located at the heart of the ground floor and is a hub. “It has a crucial pastoral role,” says Julia Johnson. “Our cafe manager Joyce, who has worked in the sixth form for well over a decade, knows every student and can often spot if someone seems out of sorts so the pastoral team can step in to offer further support.”

The fact that the sixth form centre offers work, eating and social spaces is important – so too the direct access to careers and HE advice. Head of Careers and Employability Eloise Maclean believes its vital. “It has enabled me to provide every pupil in the lower sixth with a one-to-one careers meeting and to offer a drop-in service at break and lunchtime, during which students can discuss aspirations, routes, options and ideas for life after school,” she says. There’s a board where she publicises gap year, internship and other opportunities, while the lecture space is used for HE and careers events. It all adds up to a thoroughly rounded and forward-looking space, helping young people work hard, stay social and be prepared for the onward journey.

Sixth Form 2:0 – how schools are adapting 16+ education
Eaton Square Sixth Form provides inspiring spaces for ideation and group and individual study

Eaton Square Sixth Form – part of the wider London Park Schools group within the Dukes Education family – has been deliberately designed as a transition between school and university. It feels more adult and with additional freedoms, but also plenty of ongoing pastoral care and the reassurance of boundaries. Head of Sixth Nathan Mountford says the design reflects emerging trends in contemporary workplaces and university settings, with “dynamic breakout areas” throughout to give flexibility in learning and meeting. “Central to our academic environment is the library, which, aside from being a sanctuary for quiet study, doubles as a venue for students to receive academic mentoring from their teachers,” he adds.

Spaces have been designed to encourage group working – it’s all part of a much wider mission to use every part of this wonderful Georgian building to enhance learning for students and fire up their natural ability to collaborate. “A favourite of our students is the ‘Ideation Room’,” says Nathan Mountford. “This cutting-edge space boasts whiteboard desks, state-of-the-art digital tools, and specially designed zones for brainstorming.” Cleverly, this space is seamlessly integrated with the university and HE advisory section. It’s where students explore their dreams, share innovative thoughts, and set forth on a journey to make them a reality.”

“At Eaton Square Sixth Form, the ‘Ideation Room’ is a student favourite – with whiteboard desks, state-of-the-art digital tools, and specially designed zones for brainstorming”

He adds that student feedback on the space has been and remains crucial. “We rely on pupil voice to adapt and refine our facilities, ensuring they align with their needs and aspirations.” The ‘Ideation Room’ was one of their suggestions. They have also voted to green up the spaces, resulting in many more plants throughout to make the environment healthier and homelier.  “Investing not only in academic facilities but also in wellbeing enhancements, such as the integration of greenery, underscores our commitment to holistic student welfare. In short, while we draw from contemporary trends, it’s our students’ insights that shape our facilities’ evolution.”

All teaching spaces are designed to prepare students at Eaton Square Sixth Form for what comes next, with rooms that enable seminar-style classes – these are small-scale for personalised and bespoke learning. Breakout spaces are also utilised for teaching, says Nathan Mountford. “Here, students can delve into more nuanced discussions, mimicking the seminar-like sessions they’ll encounter at university.” Technology is never far from any modern sixth form environment and digital resources are much in evidence, along with smart boards and dedicated projection areas to foster more dynamic sessions.

Sixth Form 2:0 – how schools are adapting 16+ education
Eaton Square Sixth Form is designed to support students and prepare them for what comes next at university and in the workplace

The trusty common room space is here – a place for social and down time and seen as critical for student independence and wellbeing. “This space isn’t merely an area to relax; it’s pivotal for students’ mental health, allowing them to unwind, bond, and build relationships outside the confines of a classroom,” says Nathan Mountford. There’s a student-led common room committee to keep things on track with facilities, layout and standards, he adds: “truly making it their own”.

Students at Eaton Square have access to playing fields and also a local gym. But, says Nathan Mountford, the social connectivity element is seen as even more critical. “They frequently organise movie nights and wellbeing evenings, fostering a sense of community.” There are regular coffee mornings and lunches to act as a bridge between Year 12 and Year 13 students. “These gatherings aren’t just for the students – they also provide an invaluable opportunity for senior staff to engage with them in a relaxed setting.”

With bespoke facilities at schools such as Emanuel and Eaton Square, the sixth form feels like it has come of age. This has to be good for both the wellbeing and success of an age group that faced more social deprivation than most during the pandemic and will encounter so many challenges in the rapidly shifting landscape of higher education and workplace.

Emanuel School

Eaton Square Sixth Form

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