The sixth form at St Swithun's

Choosing where to spend your sixth form years is an exciting prospect. Making the right desision for you as an individual involves balancing the opportunity to achieve your academic ambitions with access to new experiences and finding a community where you can be yourself and feel at home.

St Swithun's offers its own blend of attributes and opportunities that make sixth form life unique.

St Swithun's is a girls' school - why does that make a difference?

‘Girls schools not only lay the foundation for university life – they give students the confidence to put themselves forward and aim for the top.’ Head of admissions, American Ivy League Institution.

There is a great deal of rubbish in the media about single-sex education. I suggest you put all that to one side when considering your sixth form choices. At St Swithun’s we offer a stimulating and challenging sixth-form experience not because we are a girls’ school or indeed in spite of being a girls’ school, but because we are a school which believes in giving young people the best possible skills and characteristics with which to make a success of their lives beyond school.

Having said that, for some girls being in a single sex environment is really important because it is often simply easier to be yourself without pressure, either implicit or explicit, to conform to some idealised vision of what it means to be a woman.

At St Swithun’s, girls can choose how to behave without having to consider whether it is seen as appropriately feminine. Girls’ schools have higher percentages than co-educational schools of girls studying subjects thought of as typically male such as chemistry or physics. Indeed, there are some co-ed schools in which not a single girl studies A level physics. At St Swithun’s the sciences and maths are some of the most popular A level subjects.

This doesn’t mean that girls have to study science here, but simply that if they do that is normal and if they study arts subjects that is normal too. There is freedom from the sort of tiresome stereotyping so prevalent, still, in the ‘real’ world.

As you will be aware, stereotyping doesn’t stop with subject choice but spills over into behaviour and research has shown that girls educated in single-sex schools are more likely to be risk takers in educational and professional terms for example applying for more challenging jobs. Equally, girls educated in single sex schools are more likely to play sport and girls who play sport have a more positive body image.

In class, the girls speak up if they don’t understand something and equally they are happy to ask and answer questions without worrying what boys might think of them. If you are reading this and concluding that girls therefore need to be in a mixed environment in order to develop confidence in front of boys, please think again. My strong belief is that by 18, when they go to university, girls’ characters are far more firmly set and confidence more securely in place so that they can be themselves whatever the mix of men and women.

The young women who leave St Swithun’s at 18 are genuinely self-confident and determined to make their way in the world whatever it takes. The sixth-form experience allows them to develop at their own pace and in their own way according to their individual strengths and interests. They are used to taking the lead in a range of different situations and they continue in this vein at university and beyond.

Excellence by stealth: achieving the best possible academic results in the most relaxed way

‘Pupils make good progress at GCSE and excellent progress at A level when compared with pupils of similar ability. Those with SEND and EAL make particularly strong progress.’ ISI Inspection Report February 2017

Data from Durham University shows that pupils at St Swithun’s typically achieve at least half a grade higher at A level than would have been predicted from base-line data, with 25% of results a grade or more higher than predicted according to this same data. St Swithun’s is in the top 9% of schools nationally in terms of our value added in spite of the fact that significant value has also been added at GCSE (top 3% nationally at GCSE) making it more difficult for additional value added to be achieved at A level. This excellent value-added data reflects the way in which our teaching and support enable the girls to achieve higher grades than they would have believed possible.

We never put a ceiling on what girls can achieve. We will work as hard as your daughters – and sometimes harder – to help them get the best possible results. We will ponder on the way to school or while having a cup of coffee at weekends how best to explain new concepts so that the girls understand, how to present material in engaging ways so that the girls want to study, how to motivate those girls who haven’t yet found their own self-discipline.

 If you are wondering how this level of support prepares the girls for university, the answer is that we treat them as individuals and offer as little or as much support as necessary to achieve skills and grades. Some of your daughters will need very little support and some will need a great deal. We have experience with both ends of the spectrum and with everything in between. Our teaching extends far beyond the classroom and will ensure that your daughters are prepared for university and the world of work both academically and far more broadly. And more of that shortly.   

How do the girls achieve such excellent value-added scores? The girls are in classes of 12 or fewer taught by committed, experienced, intelligent and caring teachers. In many cases these teachers will already know the girls and will have formed strong relationships with them. There is much research to show that learners thrive when they know that their teachers care about them and are interested in their progress.

We offer extensive individual support and / or stretch and challenge as appropriate. For example, there are extension opportunities such as dissection club, academic lunches and BMAT preparation, and we offer individual and group interventions if we find girls falling behind. Our teachers are easily accessible outside class so that the girls can ensure they properly understand the material they are studying.

We continue to use Elevate – an outside provider who reinforces messages about study skills. Elevate emphasises and teaches the study habits of successful students. If the girls follow Elevate’s advice (which is also, of course, the advice of their teachers) they will achieve the best possible exam results at A level and of course at GCSE next summer.

Some people wonder how we develop independence in a school environment. It is true that in general the girls are expected to be in school from 8.15-4.20, but within that structure there is plenty of freedom and independence. For example, they can choose whether to work during their study periods or not. If not working they could be having individual tennis, music or C+P lessons, they could have arranged to see one of their teachers to go through some aspect of their course, they could be having a driving lesson, they could be involved in some form of community service or they could have chosen to socialise with their friends. The choice is theirs provided that homework is submitted on time and to a good standard.

The girls can choose to have as little or as much contact with their teachers as they wish outside the classroom. They will be offered excellent teaching, extra reading, challenging enrichment opportunities, but they don’t have to take these. They might already have extremely full lives.

We offer a wide range of A level subjects in addition to the EPQ and Italian GCSE. Where we do not offer a particular A level it is generally because it is a subject that can be started ab initio at university such as law, business studies, Chinese, accountancy, sociology, environmental science or media studies.

Becoming more independent

From the moment a girl starts at St Swithun’s, whether in lower four, lower five or the lower sixth, we are providing her with the tools she needs to thrive outside school when she leaves at the end of the upper sixth.

In the sixth form, the girls take far more responsibility for their own development and learn – if they haven’t already – to be independent, to be self-disciplined and to take the initiative.

In the lower sixth they manage their own study periods choosing whether to work in the library or the new lower sixth study area or whether to relax in the sixth form ‘Comm’. They can also opt to have music lessons, C+P lessons, EAL or learning support lessons, language conversation lessons or tennis coaching in these study periods. They may also book individual appointments with subject teachers, form tutors, the higher education department or with the school’s clinical psychologist. It is up to the girls to decide how to use their study periods provided that they complete their homework to a good standard.

In the lower sixth both day girls and boarders remain in the same houses as in upper five. They will have the opportunity to take on leadership roles within the houses and you can read more about this in the section on character development.

In the upper sixth there is a significant change: all of the upper sixth, both day girls and boarders, come together in Finlay. The girls are free to go back to Finlay to study or relax when they do not have lessons. The day girls share studies and the boarders work in their rooms. We consider this an excellent staging post on the road to university. The girls have a great deal of freedom within the framework of a school.

Co-existing in Finlay with up to 70 other young women gives further opportunities to practise getting on with a range of other people and to practise looking after yourself. There are increased freedoms in terms of preparing meals, going into town, managing study time, taking responsibility for the running of the boarding house and so on.

All girls have the opportunity to take on positions of responsibility. We expect the girls to make as much of these roles as they wish. It is important for them to learn about being disciplined and about working with others in order to make a positive impact on the school community.

The mix of nationalities and backgrounds is a real advantage for all, providing a wide spectrum of experiences, ideas and interests. Gaining the confidence to interact with everyone and anyone is enormously valuable as the girls prepare for life in an increasingly international and diverse world. Social events with other schools give further opportunities for developing links and for practising talking to strangers. In addition, sixth formers more generally are often asked to help host events involving governors, parents and prospective parents.

Specialist higher education and careers advice

‘Pupils typically achieve places at highly selective universities in the UK and overseas, supported by the clear and helpful guidance provided by those involved in university advice.’ ISI Inspection Report February 2017

We offer personalised higher education and careers guidance to every member of the sixth form. Indeed, girls who have been with us since 13+ will have been allocated one of our HESG team to advise them about GCSE choices. In the sixth form there is advice on offer about A level choices and then about university courses.

Our comprehensive programme includes:

  • One-to-one interviews and guidance about A level choices, university courses and possible careers as frequently as necessary including after girls have left St Swithun’s

  • Access to careers fairs and gap fairs which rotate between St Swithun’s and Winchester College

  • Access to careers and aptitude-related software to give girls a starting point in deciding on university courses

  • Visiting speakers describing their careers

  • Access to our extensive network of old girls who can offer advice, mentoring and work experience

  • Interview practice

  • Support and help with completing UCAS forms and personal statements

  • Specialised support for those applying for particularly competitive courses such as medicine or veterinary science

  • Post-A level results support – if your daughter does better or worse than expected we are here to give her advice

Oxbridge preparation

Many of our girls wish to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. In the lower sixth we organise a trip to the Oxford and Cambridge Student Conference in Epsom and individual subject staff hold enrichment sessions from Easter onwards.

These enrichment sessions become more interview / admissions test specific in the autumn of the upper sixth. In addition, we encourage girls to attend open days, take part in some of the many essay competitions and read and think beyond A level specifications.

Furthermore, we have a dedicated member of staff to oversee each girl’s individual Oxbridge preparation.

Co-curricular - get a hobby, any hobby

Girls in the sixth form have access to a wide range of co-curricular activities and are welcome to suggest more.

There are over 40 activities on offer such as sport, music, drama, Duke of Edinburgh, debating and public speaking, art, technology, Green Power (building and racing a battery-powered car), Assist (raising awareness and money for charity), science journal society, Classics club, Philosothon, Young Enterprise and so on. The list is as long and as varied as the girls choose to make it.

Although some choices are inevitable, we try hard to schedule activities so that obvious combinations are possible. Unlike many schools and sixth form colleges, for example, we ensure that the girls can continue with both lacrosse and netball if they so wish. It is also perfectly possible to combine music or drama and sport with a dash of debating or Assist thrown in as well.

At weekends there are regular activities such as riding, golf and archery plus of course the opportunity to enjoy music practice. In addition, there are a range of other opportunities such as surfing or watersports weekends, visits to towns and cities such as Bath or Oxford or to local places of beauty and / or interest.

Furthermore, we offer residential trips such as the Camps International trip to Malawi in 2019 and the recent biology trip to Dominica. Closer to home, there are visits to places such as Berlin for those studying German or art, to Venice for those studying Italian, art history or art and to Russia for those studying history.

Why do we think that getting involved in co-curricular activities is so important? For the self-discipline, the enjoyment, the camaraderie, the opportunity to get to know other girls beyond your immediate friendship group, for learning to be reliable, to persevere, to manage your time and to learn more about other cultures.

In addition, we regularly invite speakers into school. Once again, the girls can suggest speakers, can attend the talks, can help host the speakers for supper beforehand and can introduce them and give a vote of thanks. All of the above allow the girls to develop interests and skills that will be of use as they move beyond St Swithun’s.

A characterful approach

‘The quality of the pupils’ personal development is excellent.’

‘Pupils are excellent citizens within their own community and have developed a considerable capacity to make a positive contribution to the wider world.’

‘Pupils have a strong spiritual understanding.’

‘Pupils show tremendous respect for one another whatever their cultural or religious background.’

ISI Inspection Report February 2017

The extracts above, taken from our most recent inspection report, give a flavour of how the girls develop at St Swithun’s. Rather than leave character development to chance, hoping that the girls will just acquire traits such as strength, compassion, the confidence to speak to people they don’t know, the ability to organise themselves and others, we offer a coherent and comprehensive programme.

Our character development programme *

At St Swithun’s, we believe in preparing young women for life beyond the school gates. We run a character development programme aimed specifically at helping girls to develop character traits which reflect our founding virtues of caritas, humilitas and sinceritas. In addition, we seek to teach the girls qualities such as persistence, courage and having a sense of perspective.

The following are some of the key ways in which we develop character:

Taking responsibility

All members of the upper sixth form who wish to have a named responsibility for an aspect of school life. This builds on the skills of leadership, diplomacy, persuasion and patience acquired during the lower sixth when every girl was responsible for an aspect of life within their day or boarding house.

Empower leadership and followership training

All members of the sixth form receive leadership and followership training. This explicitly emphasises the skills necessary to lead others and to be a good follower. Not everyone wants to lead all of the time and nor would this be desirable. We believe that knowing how to pull together in support of a common goal is as important as being the one to put forward the vision.


Every member of the upper sixth leads a ‘family’. This means that each of the girls is responsible for a group of girls including at least one pupil from each year group. The upper sixth are trained to use ice-breaking activities and to deal with any less than enthusiastic members of her family. These skills will be useful throughout her life.

Using your initiative

Members of the sixth form are encouraged to launch new events, clubs or activities. These could range from organising a talk from a visiting speaker, directing a play, organising a concert, leading a new club, etc.

Public speaking

All members of the sixth form are encouraged to take part in assembly. The ability to speak in public is an important one. For those who are nervous about speaking in front of others or who find it difficult talking to new people, there is a course of lessons to build confidence. All members of the upper sixth also take part in a team speaking competition at school. In addition, there are opportunities to represent the school at debating and public speaking events.

Caring for others

Practical compassion is an essential characteristic for girls at St Swithun’s. By this we mean that all members of the sixth form have the chance to help other people. This could be through volunteering to organise activities for younger girls in the senior and junior schools, through organising a tea party for the elderly in Winchester or through being involved in organising charity events at school. Reaching out to others and thus diverting attention away from yourself has been found significantly to enhance happiness and wellbeing in addition to teaching the girls about doing the right thing.

Keep calm and laugh

The girls are in small form groups of 10-12 girls and are encouraged to seek help and advice from their form tutors. In addition, Mrs Evans and Mrs Campbell, head of sixth form and assistant head of sixth form respectively, have many years of experience in the trials and triumphs of sixth formers and can offer all sorts of practical and emotional support. For those girls who need more specific help, we have our full time, free, clinical psychologist, Dr Helen O’Connor who is a specialist in adolescent mental health.

We are a small enough school to notice very quickly if things are going wrong. You daughter will not go unnoticed in this environment.

I believe strongly in the power of perspective. It is our role as a school to seek to give all of our students a sense of perspective and we rely on parents to work with us on this. We absolutely do not believe in pressure; where students feel under pressure there is typically a lot of noise, but limited learning.

Throughout her time at St Swithun’s a girl will learn the importance of planning, paying attention to what she can control and not worrying about what she can’t, seeking advice from experts and laughing. We try our best to provide a light-hearted approach to most aspects of school life as we know that happy students make the best progress.