Do sixth forms make for better secondary schools?

  • On average, secondary schools with sixth forms obtain better GCSE results than those without sixth forms.
  • However, they also tend to have more able, affluent pupils and are more likely to be selective. Once these and other potentially confounding factors are taken into account, there is very little difference in GCSE performance between schools that have a sixth form and those that don't.
  • There is, however, a big difference in post-GCSE destinations. Pupils at schools with a sixth form are much more likely to go to a sixth form (whether at the same school or elsewhere) and are correspondingly less likely to enter a further education (FE) college. This effect persists even after controlling for other factors. Based on these results, providing a sixth form in every secondary school might be expected to result in up to 20,000 more pupils each year choosing that route over an FE college. Conversely, separating all sixth forms from secondary schools might be expected to result in up to 50,000 more pupils every year going to an FE college.
  • Thus secondary schools with integrated sixth forms do not enable greater academic success at GCSE, but they do encourage more academic educational routes thereafter.

Figure 1: Attainment 8 Scores (2017)
Note: Includes all mainstream state schools in England for which DfE data are available.
Sample sizes: All schools: 3,118. With sixth form: 2,136. No sixth form: 982.
Sources: Department for Education; SchoolDash analysis.
Figure 2: Pupils achieving five or more A*-C/9-4 GCSEs or equivalents including English and Maths (2017)
Note: Includes all mainstream state schools in England for which DfE data are available.
Sample sizes: All schools: 3,118. With sixth form: 2,136. No sixth form: 982.
Sources: Department for Education; SchoolDash analysis.
Figure 3: Progress 8 Scores (2017)
Note: Includes all mainstream state schools in England for which DfE data are available.
Sample sizes: All schools: 3,110. With sixth form: 2,130. No sixth form: 980.
Sources: Department for Education; SchoolDash analysis.
Figure 4: Pupil composition (2016)
Sample sizes: All schools: 3,092-3,110. With sixth form (all): 2,110-2,128. With sixth form (similar): 982. No sixth form: 982.
(Sample sizes vary because not all data fields are available for all schools.)
Sources: Department for Education; SchoolDash analysis.
Figure 5: Attainment 8 scores (2016-2017)
Sample sizes: All schools: 1,982-3,107. With sixth form (all): 1,435-2,125. With sixth form (similar): 547-982. No sixth form: 547-982.
Sources: Department for Education; SchoolDash analysis.
Figure 6: Proportions of pupils achieving five good GCSEs (2016-2017)
Sample sizes: All schools: 1,982-3,118. With sixth form (all): 1,435-2,136. With sixth form (similar): 547-982. No sixth form: 547-982.
Sources: Department for Education; SchoolDash analysis.
Figure 7: Progress 8 scores (2016-2017)
Sample sizes: All schools: 1,730-3,110. With sixth form (all): 1,274-2,130. With sixth form (similar): 456-980. No sixth form: 456-980.
Sources: Department for Education; SchoolDash analysis.
Figure 8: Post-GCSE destinations (2014-2015)
Sample sizes: All schools: 529,306-533,387 pupils. With sixth form (all): 375,472-380,805 pupils.
With sixth form (similar): 174,987-176,796 pupils. No sixth form: 149,360-150,673 pupils.
Sources: Department for Education; SchoolDash analysis.
  1. We analysed 3,118 mainstream state secondary schools in England. Of these, 2,136 (68.5%) have a sixth form and 982 (31.5%) don't.
  2. Each school without a sixth form was matched to another schools with a sixth form. The latter was selected to be as similar as possible based on its proportions of boys and girls, pupils with high and low prior attainment, pupils who are eligible for free school meals, pupils with special educational needs (both with and without statements), and pupils for whom English is an additional language. In addition, London schools were only matched with other London schools (and similarly for non-London schools). Finally, grammar schools (all of which have sixth forms) were never matched as there are no similarly selective schools that don't have sixth forms. These matches were all made using 2016 DfE data. In the results presented here, the same sixth-form school could be matched against more than one non-sixth-form school; rerunning the analysis with the additional constraint that each sixth-form school could only be matched once did not change the results significantly.
  3. In order to protect pupil confidentiality, the DfE suppresses some of the counts in its destinations data, especially where low numbers are involved. In these cases we use a variety of heuristics to estimate exact numbers. Though this inevitably generates small inaccuracies, we don't believe that these materially affect any of our results or conclusions.

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