I am very fortunate to have taught in four independent schools, three of which were girls only, with absolutely superb Sixth Forms (Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls, North London Collegiate School and its sister school in Jeju and now, of course, Blackheath High). It mystifies me when I hear talk about the decline of single-sex Sixth Forms, as each of those I have had the privilege to teach in, or to lead have been inspiring, empowering fabulous places. To me, Sixth Form should be the pinnacle of school life, the stage when students really begin to spread their wings and the time when students get as much from giving back to the school, as they gain from its teaching and guidance.
Superb Sixth Forms can differ greatly in character but they also share key features:
- Passionate, inspiring teaching. Teachers who relish their Sixth Form lessons and create an inner sanctum in their classroom where students are free to explore ideas, challenge themselves and learn from a teacher who is an expert, and from each other.
- Teaching that fosters curiosity. Teachers who are not afraid for ideas, concepts or even knowledge, to be challenged by students in the pursuit of greater understanding and broader horizons. The intangible ‘buzz’.
- An atmosphere where individuals are truly well known by the staff (from the receptionist to the head teacher) and this knowledge is used to cajole, encourage and nudge each girl to achieve what they don’t even know what they are capable of yet. UCAS references are written from the heart and based on detailed knowledge of each student.
- Ambition. An ethos where girls are encouraged to think big. If they want to start a Feminist Society, then they do. If they want to invite a controversial outside speaker to school, they are asked to weigh up the value and outcome before reaching a decision. The answer is ‘Why not?’ as opposed to ‘no’.
- Students are treated as the mature, intelligent thoughtful young women that they are, it has a different feel to the rest of the school. Relationships with staff are important and focussed on mutual respect and a shared educational objective.
- Younger girls cannot wait to be a Sixth Former. They are desperate to be Head Girl, or Chair of Debating Society or Sports Captain as they have seen such superb examples of this in girls older than themselves.
- There is awareness of the world around and focus on the important issues. Energy is not taken up worrying about appearance, outfits or the latest relationship gossip. Students are interested in politics. They are interested in the environment and they engage readily and genuinely in meaningful community service. The get outraged by injustice. They write an EPQ on a topic in which they have a genuine academic interest, they might even read a broadsheet or listen to Radio 4 (perhaps in secret!).
- Sixth Formers who are balanced and do not forsake all of their co-curricular interests for the sake of A Level study. They still play sport, they sing in the choir, they debate, they know how to have fun!
For a successful Sixth Form that really springboards students into a happy successful future, these are the critical ingredients. Fabulous A Level results are the outcome of all these features, not the starting point. More importantly, girls have the skills, flexibility, confidence and attitudes that will enable them to thrive at university and in later life: all qualities I am proud to say mark out a Blackheath High Sixth Former.
Mrs Carol Chandler Thompson, Headteacher