Students should pay attention to careers when deciding on the best place to study after GCSEs

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Among the countless parents breathing a surreptitious sigh of relief this week as they watch their teenagers return to school or college, many will be crossing their fingers in the hope that their offspring have chosen the right place for their post-16 studies. The decision of where to study for A-levels, and equivalent vocational courses, can be just as important for life chances as the angst-ridden one taken by parents five years previously at the junction of primary and secondary school.

For those finishing GCSEs, there are three main avenues to choose from: staying on with the sixth form of their current school (if it has one); transferring to a sixth-form college, where almost all fellow students will be school leavers of the same age; or moving to a further education (FE) college, where the age mix and range of courses will be much wider, and the atmosphere more informal. In some areas, the sixth-form and FE colleges are rolled into one institution, which are known as tertiary colleges.

Each path has its own potential advantages and pitfalls, but none of these should override the importance of personal factors. It is vital that you gauge what is best for the individual, in light of his or her ambitions for life.

"It is important for the student to think carefully about what their realistic career aims are and decide which institution has the courses that best match those aims," says Debbie Smith, who is the head of sixth form at a Surrey comprehensive.

The rule of thumb is as follows: doing traditional subjects at A-level suggests a choice between a school and a sixth form college; while opting for more off-beat subjects or vocational courses will mean considering an FE college as well.

But equally important to many teenagers are social factors. "Some students tell me they want to leave school and go to a college because they want to make new friends and be in a more sophisticated environment," says Smith. "And they have often been swayed by glossy college prospectuses."

To counter this, she stresses the advantages of staying at school: familiar teachers and routines, and class sizes that are frequently smaller than in a sixth-form or FE college.

"I'd strongly advise students and parents to find out about class sizes at colleges," adds Smith. "Ask how previous students have done in exams in the relevant subjects, and have a look at the latest Ofsted report as well."

The overall exam performance of over-16s at all institutions is covered in the secondary school performance tables, published in January each year in The Independent.

But leaving school regimentation behind does work for some students. Tom Fitzpatrick, now doing a human geography degree at Manchester Metropolitan University, chose to leave the academic, high-performing confines of the London Oratory School for the vastly bigger Richmond upon Thames College, a tertiary education provider where thousands of students are spread across more than 600 different courses.

"I wanted to find new inspiration and do some new subjects like psychology and sociology, which weren't available at the Oratory," he says.

When he got there, he saw large numbers of students drop out in the first term, partially due to the less formal approach, which, like all colleges, expects individuals to take more responsibility for their own progress. But Fitzpatrick found that he thrived in the new surroundings. "It was the right decision for me because I was self-reliant and didn't need to be pushed," he says.

Sharon Ludgate, a maths teacher who recently moved from a London comprehensive with its own sixth form to a big sixth-form college in Hampshire, agrees that the choice of institution should be guided by the characteristics of the individual student.

"I now see the advantages of a sixth-form college," she says. "They treat the students more maturely, which then makes them behave in a more mature way, whereas schools with rules designed for much younger students tend to treat sixth-formers as children"

But Ludgate concedes that, for teenagers who might be susceptible to going off the rails or needing pastoral support, a school environment might be a better fit. "Most of the teachers at my sixth-form college just consider themselves teachers of their subject, with no additional responsibilities for the students' well-being, so it can be easy for some students to get lost," she says.