Safety isn't first when choosing where to go

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How should 16-year-olds choose between the competing claims of sixth forms, further education colleges and sixth-form colleges? Much will depend on individual students institutions. One of the main advantages traditionally associated with further education colleges is that they are able to offer a greater breadth of both academic and vocational courses than schools. However, some schools with big sixth forms now offer a wide range of courses. If a course a student wants is offered at school, then other considerations will apply.

Some students may be tempted to stay at school because they feel safer among teachers and surroundings they know, but headteachers say this is a bad reason for staying put. The best schools should be helping sixth formers to stand on their own feet. Heads believe schools' strength lies in teaching students to become independent learners.

Further education colleges, for their part, have a tradition of good links with employers for whom they provide training. They also offer the opportunity to study part time, and have a history of inclusiveness because they admit such a wide variety of students. Their image as non-academic is misplaced: 50 per cent of all A-levels are now studied in colleges. Though many adults study at further education colleges, 16- to 19-year-olds are usually taught separately. For some students the attraction of studying at college will be the chance of a fresh start and a more adult atmosphere.

The 117 sixth-form colleges are, to quote one principal, "a half-way house between schools and further education colleges". Students, say college prinicpals, are offered more freedom from regulations than at school but links with parents and careers guidance is stronger than in some further education colleges. They say they provide a wider choice of A-level than many schools and obtain good results. Vocational courses are increasingly on offer.