London’s sixth forms.

london cartogram

There are around 165,000 students studying in London’s publicly funded sixth forms. These students are enrolled across 380 different institutions of many types and sizes which can be grouped into 4 broad categories:

  • School sixth forms (as part of a school with a wider age range) of many types.
  • Sixth form colleges which are specialist 16-19 institutions.
  • Further Education colleges which often have a wider age range (although they may organise their sixth form provision discretely).
  • Dedicated 16-19 providers of various kinds including ’16-19 schools’ and academies.

The various consortia arrangements which groups of schools have created sit somewhere between the first and last of these categories.

London has the full spectrum of these different types of provider and any review of 16-19 education in the capital needs to start from an understanding of the full range of ways in which sixth formers access similar programmes.

This is an initial overview of the pattern of provision based on data in the 2015 post-16 performance tables and is part of a deeper analysis of sixth form provision in London. It is mainly based on data on final year advanced cohort (‘academic’ and ‘vocational’) who amount to about a third of the total students enrolled. This suggests that roughly a further third are in the first year and a further third are studying courses below advanced level – which in many cases will provide progression to advanced level.

This overview will limit itself to questions of location, institution type and size and course type. This begs many questions about breadth of offer, cost effectiveness and quality which will be addressed elsewhere.


The main subdivisions used are the 32 London boroughs. It would also be of interest to analyse the data by subregional local authority groupings (as I’ve done here for London Local) as this irons out some of the boundary issues and reveals subregional differences. It’s also a level of potential intervention by councils working together.

The 32 boroughs have a wide variation in the number of sixth formers in education, ranging from 9,200 in Barnet and 8,000 in Croydon to 1,200 in Merton and 1,600 in Southwark. This eight-fold population difference between largest and smallest suggests that some boroughs will need to work with others on any post-16 aspirations they have.

The local patterns of provision vary widely too. At one end, Richmond is almost a ‘pure’ tertiary system with over 1,000 final year advanced level students (roughly half ‘academic’ and half ‘vocational’) studying at the college and virtually none in school sixth forms in the borough. Havering, Islington, Lewisham, Newham and Waltham Forest also have most of their sixth formers enrolled in colleges of various kinds. At the other end of the spectrum Barking, Bexley, Brent, Ealing, Enfield, Redbridge and Sutton have no A-level students enrolled in colleges in the borough (but see * below).

Institution type and size:

The overall cohort is very unevenly distributed with 78% of all final year A-level students located across 331 school sixth forms and 20% located in 30 colleges (sixth form and FE). The distribution of advanced vocational students is very different, with 64% in colleges and 33% in schools.

The average number of final year A-level students per school sixth form is 82, compared to 367 per sixth form college, 138 per FE college and 166 per 16-19 specialist school. The smallest average A-level year group sizes are found in school sixth forms in Islington (39), Lambeth (50), Tower Hamlets and Croydon (51 each).

The average number of final year advanced vocational students per school sixth form is 24, compared to 306 per FE college, 261 per sixth form college and 129 per 16-19 specialist school. The smallest average advanced vocational group sizes are found in schools in Kingston (7), Barnet (10), Havering (12) and Southwark (13).

Advanced academic qualifications

Number % total Ave. Y2 students
School sixth forms 331 78% 82
Sixth form colleges 12 13% 367
FE colleges 18 7% 138
16-19 schools 6 2% 166


Advanced vocational qualifications

Number % total Ave. Y2 students
School sixth forms 270 33% 24
Sixth form colleges 12 16% 261
FE colleges 31 48% 306
16-19 schools 7 3% 129


Small school sixth forms:

160 school sixth forms, nearly half the total, have fewer than 200 students overall. This means they fall below the government’s proposed viability threshold for new sixth form provision. With average A-level year group sizes of less than 100 and average vocational year group sizes less than 25 it’s likely that the average London school sixth form is not able to offer a very broad post-16 offer to its students. Some have created consortia to address this, but according to the performance tables, this is not yet widespread practice.

The boroughs with the most school sixth forms below 200 are: Hillingdon (12), Croydon (10), Hackney, Southwark and Tower Hamlets (8 each). At the other end, Newham has none and Kensington & Chelsea only has one.

Course type:

Using the performance table data, it is possible to compare the proportion of students on advanced ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ pathways. There is no ‘right’ ratio, but across London 36% of advanced students are following vocational courses. Boroughs where this percentage is substantially lower include: Southwark (17%), Sutton (19%) while it is at its highest in Barking (58%) and Westminster (55%).

*This borough level variation is partly related to whether or not there is a college located in the borough rather than whether local students are studying vocational courses, which they may cross borough boundaries to do. This is where a larger, subregional analysis would help.


This kind of analysis serves to remind us of the somewhat incoherent pattern of post-16 provision we have, which does not serve young people as well as it could. It should also remind us that we could plan this provision a bit more coherently by creating new kinds of partnership between sixth form providers. Perhaps this could be a positive legacy of the current area reviews.

Further analysis:

A sixth form profile of the ‘Local London’ area (February 2016)

On the availability of ‘minority’ A-level subjects in London:

A level languages in London. (February 2016)

A-level Drama in London (March 2016)

Classical Capital (March 2016)

Accessing the IB diploma (February 2016)

A-level minority report: Dance, Music, Philosophy (February 2016)




About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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