Difference between Sixth Form and FE College (Sixth Form vs FE College)

Difference between Sixth Form and FE College (Sixth Form vs FE College)

Sixth Form primarily focuses on academic qualifications like A-levels in a structured environment similar to secondary school, while Further Education (FE) College offers a wider range of academic and vocational courses in a more diverse and independent setting.

Deciphering the difference between sixth form and FE college in the UK can be confusing for many. Keep reading to learn more about how they compare with each other.


In the UK, post-16 education offers various pathways, two of which are the Sixth Form and FE College. As students approach the end of their compulsory education, making a choice between these two options can be challenging.

Both institutions facilitate further studies, but they differ in several aspects. This article will dissect the differences between Sixth Form and FE College to help students and their guardians make informed decisions.

Defining the Terms: Sixth Form vs FE College

Before delving into the differences, let’s define the two educational options:

  • Sixth Form: A Sixth Form is a part of secondary education where students aged 16 to 18 (Years 12 and 13) prepare for their A-levels or other qualifications. These qualifications are often prerequisites for university admissions. Sixth Forms can be part of secondary schools (school-based Sixth Forms) or independent institutions (Sixth Form Colleges).
  • FE College: FE Colleges cater to a broader age range, providing education and training for students over 16 years old. These colleges offer a variety of courses, including A-levels, vocational qualifications, and apprenticeships.

Now, let’s examine the difference between Sixth Form and FE College.

Curriculum and Qualifications in Sixth Form and FE College

  • Sixth Form: Sixth Forms mainly focus on academic qualifications, specifically A-levels. A-levels are subject-based qualifications that universities often require for admission. Some Sixth Forms might offer BTECs or other qualifications, but A-levels are their primary focus.
  • FE College: FE Colleges offer a more diverse range of qualifications. In addition to A-levels, students can pursue vocational qualifications like BTECs, NVQs, and City & Guilds. FE Colleges also provide apprenticeships and access courses designed for adults returning to education.

Learning Environment in Sixth Form and FE College

  • Sixth Form: Being part of a school or closely modelled on a school environment, Sixth Forms tend to have a more structured and formal atmosphere. The class sizes are usually smaller, and there is often a greater emphasis on pastoral care. This environment can be beneficial for students who thrive in a more supportive and focused setting.
  • FE College: FE Colleges, on the other hand, often resemble a university setting. There is more independence, and students are treated more like adults. Classes may be larger, and the campus typically offers a broader range of facilities.

Student Demographic in Sixth Form and FE College

  • Sixth Form: Sixth Form students are predominantly aged between 16 and 18, as it caters specifically to those in Years 12 and 13.
  • FE College: FE Colleges serve a more diverse age range. While many students are recent school leavers, there are also many adult learners. This diversity can offer a different perspective and networking opportunities.

Sixth Form and FE College Specialisations

  • Sixth Form: Sixth Forms are generally more specialized in terms of subjects. Students typically choose three or four A-level subjects to study in depth.
  • FE College: With the range of courses available, FE Colleges tend to be less specialized. Vocational courses may provide more practical skills training in specific trades or professions.

Geographic Availability of Sixth Form and FE Colleges in the UK

  • Sixth Form: Sixth Forms are more prevalent in some regions of the UK, particularly in England. The concept of a Sixth Form is uncommon in other parts, such as Scotland.
  • FE College: FE Colleges are widespread across the UK, offering more geographic flexibility for students.

The Difference between Sixth Form and FE College

AspectSixth FormFE College
Age RangeTypically 16-18 years oldBroad age range (16 years old and above)
Main FocusAcademic studies, primarily A-levelsVariety of courses, including academic and vocational qualifications
EnvironmentMore structured, similar to a school environmentMore independent, similar to a university environment
Class SizeGenerally smallerTends to have larger classes
Types of Qualifications OfferedMostly A-levels, some BTECsA-levels, BTECs, NVQs, City & Guilds, apprenticeships, and more
SpecializationMore specialised, 3-4 in-depth subjectsLess specialised, wider range of subjects and qualifications
Geographic AvailabilityMore common in EnglandWidespread across the UK
Student DemographicPredominantly aged 16-18Diverse age range, including adult learners
Pastoral CareOften a greater emphasis on pastoral careLess emphasis on pastoral care
IndependenceLess independence, more supervisedMore independence, less supervision
The Difference between Sixth Form and FE College (Sixth Form vs FE College)

Are the term times and holidays the same in Sixth Form and FE College?

Generally, Sixth Forms tend to follow the traditional school calendar, which usually comprises three terms: autumn, spring, and summer. There are also half-term breaks and holidays during Christmas, Easter, and summer.

On the other hand, FE Colleges might have a slightly different schedule. While they typically operate on a three-term system, the dates for term start, half-term breaks, and holidays may vary.

Additionally, FE Colleges might offer more flexibility, particularly for adult learners, with some courses starting at different times throughout the year or running during evenings and weekends.

Are class sizes in Sixth Form smaller than in FE College?

Sixth Form class sizes are generally smaller than those in FE Colleges. This is often due to the nature of the environment in Sixth Forms, which is more structured and akin to secondary school settings.

The smaller class sizes in Sixth Forms allow for more individualized attention from teachers, which can be beneficial for students who thrive in a more personalized learning atmosphere.

Conversely, FE Colleges usually have larger class sizes. This is partly because they cater to a broader range of students and offer a wider variety of courses. The environment in FE Colleges is more akin to that of universities, with an emphasis on independent learning.

However, it is important to note that this is a general trend, and there can be exceptions. Some FE Colleges might have smaller class sizes for certain courses, especially those that require more hands-on training. Similarly, popular courses in Sixth Form might have relatively large classes.

Are there more subjects to choose from in FE College compared to Sixth Form?

For students seeking a wide variety of subject choices, or those interested in vocational or specialised training, FE Colleges are likely to provide more options. On the other hand, Sixth Forms might be more suitable for students who have a clear focus on pursuing academic A-level subjects.

FE Colleges typically offer a broader range of subjects compared to Sixth Forms. FE Colleges are designed to cater to diverse educational needs and interests, which is why they provide an extensive selection of courses.

These include A-levels, vocational qualifications such as BTECs and NVQs, apprenticeships, and various specialized training programs in fields like healthcare, engineering, art, and media. Additionally, FE Colleges might offer adult education and access courses for individuals looking to enter higher education.

In contrast, Sixth Forms primarily focus on academic qualifications, with A-levels being the central offering.

While some Sixth Forms may offer a range of A-level subjects, the selection is generally more limited than FE Colleges. Furthermore, vocational and specialized training options are not as common in Sixth Forms as they are in FE Colleges.

Is there a difference in teaching methods between Sixth Form and FE College?

Sixth Form usually offers a more structured and closely guided teaching approach, while FE Colleges provide a variety of teaching methods with an emphasis on independence and practical application, depending on the course.

In Sixth Form, the teaching style is often more structured and similar to secondary schools. Teachers might have a more hands-on approach, closely monitoring students’ progress and offering guidance.

The smaller class sizes in Sixth Forms often facilitate more one-on-one interactions, and the teaching may be more focused on preparing students for A-level examinations.

On the other hand, teaching methods in FE Colleges tend to be more varied and aligned with the diversity of courses offered. In addition to traditional lectures, there may be workshops, practical sessions, and group projects, especially in vocational courses.

The environment in FE Colleges often resembles that of universities, and students are usually expected to be more independent in their learning. There’s generally less hand-holding, and students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own education.

Can I do apprenticeships in Sixth Form, or is it only possible at FE College?

If you want to undertake an apprenticeship, FE College is the appropriate choice, as Sixth Forms are generally oriented towards traditional academic studies.
Apprenticeships are generally not offered within Sixth Forms, as they primarily focus on academic qualifications, such as A-levels.

Sixth Forms are designed for students who wish to continue with a more traditional academic pathway, usually with the intention of progressing to university.

On the other hand, FE Colleges offer a more diverse range of educational pathways, including apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are programs that combine work with study, allowing students to gain practical experience in a specific trade or profession while also obtaining relevant qualifications.

FE Colleges often partner with local businesses and organizations to offer apprenticeships in various fields such as engineering, healthcare, construction, and more.

For students keen on gaining practical work experience alongside their studies and who have a clear idea of the career path they wish to follow, an apprenticeship through an FE College would be a more suitable option.

Which option is better for preparing for university – Sixth Form vs FE College?

The choice between Sixth Form and FE College for preparing for university depends on the individual’s learning preferences, career goals, and the kind of university course they aim to pursue.

Sixth Form is often considered a traditional route for those aiming to attend university. With a focus on A-levels, a common requirement for university entry, Sixth Form provides a structured environment that may help students develop strong academic skills.

The smaller class sizes and close teacher-student relationships in Sixth Form can also be beneficial for individuals who thrive in a more supportive environment.

Conversely, FE Colleges offer academic qualifications like A-levels and vocational qualifications like BTECs. Obtaining a vocational qualification from an FE College might be more relevant for students pursuing a career-focused university course.

Additionally, the diverse and independent learning environment in FE Colleges can help prepare students for the autonomy often required at university.

Can international students enrol in Sixth Form or FE College in the UK, and are there different requirements?

International students can enrol in Sixth Form and FE Colleges in the UK. However, there are different requirements and procedures compared to domestic students.

For Sixth Form, international students typically need to have completed their secondary education equivalent to UK GCSEs. They must also demonstrate proficiency in English, often through an accepted English language test such as IELTS or TOEFL.

Additionally, international students may need to apply for a Child Student visa if they are under 18, or a Student visa if they are 18 or over, depending on the length and type of study.

In FE Colleges, the entry requirements for international students can be more varied. Like Sixth Form, FE Colleges usually require evidence of completed secondary education and English language proficiency.

However, FE Colleges often offer a broader range of courses, and the entry requirements might differ depending on the course. For instance, vocational courses may have different prerequisites compared to academic courses.

International students enrolling in FE Colleges usually need to apply for a Student visa, provided that the course is full-time and leads to a recognized qualification.

Both Sixth Forms and FE Colleges may also have additional requirements, such as academic references, interviews, or entrance exams. Tuition fees for international students are generally higher than for domestic students, and it’s essential to check the specific fees and financial requirements with the institution.

Can students with special educational needs get tailored support in both Sixth Form and FE College?

Students with special educational needs (SEN) can receive tailored support in both Sixth Forms and FE Colleges in the UK.

The level and type of support may vary depending on the institution, but both types of establishments are required to comply with the Equality Act 2010, which ensures that students with disabilities and special educational needs are not discriminated against and have access to the support they need.

In Sixth Forms, the support for SEN students is often more structured and similar to what is provided in secondary schools. This might include personalized learning plans, additional tutoring, or learning support assistants. Some Sixth Forms may also have specialized staff and resources dedicated to helping students with particular needs, such as learning difficulties, physical disabilities, or mental health issues.

Similarly, FE Colleges often have dedicated support services for students with special educational needs. These might include learning support assistants, specialized equipment, and additional learning support such as tutoring or study skills workshops. FE Colleges might also work with external organizations and specialists to provide additional support.

It is essential for students with special educational needs and their families to communicate their needs clearly during the application process. They should inquire about the specific support services available and, where necessary, develop a support plan in collaboration with the institution.

Do Sixth Form colleges have a more traditional uniform policy compared to FE Colleges?

Sixth Form colleges generally tend to have a more traditional uniform policy compared to FE Colleges. This is because Sixth Forms often operate within the structure of secondary schools or are closely aligned with them, and therefore, they may continue the practice of wearing uniforms as a part of maintaining a formal and disciplined learning environment.

In contrast, FE Colleges often adopt a more relaxed approach to dress code, reflecting a more university-like atmosphere.

Students in FE Colleges are usually not required to wear uniforms and have the freedom to wear casual attire. This aligns with the independent learning environment and the diverse age range of students that FE Colleges cater to.

However, there are exceptions to these general trends. Some Sixth Forms may have a more relaxed dress code, especially those that are not attached to schools.

Conversely, certain courses in FE Colleges, especially those that are vocational or involve practical work, may require specific attire or uniforms for safety and professionalism.

Conclusion: Sixth Form vs FE College

In deciding between Sixth Form and FE College, students must consider their academic preferences, learning style, and career goals.

Sixth Form may be more suitable for those seeking a structured environment and focusing on academic subjects, while FE offers a diverse range of courses and a more autonomous learning environment.

Both pathways are valuable, and the choice should align with the individual’s aspirations and strengths. Consulting teachers, career advisors and visiting the institutions can also be invaluable in making this important decision.


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