One of Rachel Fink’s first acts on becoming head of JFS in mid-2018 was to appoint Oliver Walton as head of sixth form. He followed her from Hasmonean, where he had been head of years 10 and 11 boys for four years.
When he arrived in September that year, he was instantly struck by the size of the school, whose sixth form alone can accommodate 550 students. It took him nearly a year to get used to “the lay of the land”.
JFS’s sixth form enjoys an outstanding rating from Ofsted. But that did not mean no scope for change. He himself is from an academic background, having gained a PhD in early 20th-century English poetry before switching from academia to school teaching eight years ago when he was 38. But one of his first goals was to improve the vocational offering.
“When I started, my sense was that it’s almost an A-levels or nothing culture,” he says. “That probably is something that filters done from parents and grandparents.
“JFS has probably had a fantastic academic record in terms of A-levels and getting people into Oxbridge and redbrick universities. What wasn’t there was this alternative route that is starting to develop.”
So although JFS has offered popular courses in media studies, business studies or childcare, he wants to increase the provision. “We are introducing a fashion and textiles Btec at key stage four with the idea that we’ll bring that in [to the sixth form] too. I’m in discussion with the PE department about a sports Btec.”
While the school currently offers single or double Btec business studies in the sixth form— equivalent to one or two A-levels respectively — it is considering extending that to include the triple award as well.
“I think we need to be a bit more digitally aware but we have to find the right course for us. We are offering an A-level in computer science but I think it’s appropriate to look at what we could offer in a Btec in digital programming.”
It has also introduced more support for students thinking of apprenticeships or apprenticeship degrees rather than conventional university courses.
Whereas the school had run a special programme for pupils intending to apply to Oxbridge or medical school, which for example prepared them for interviews, it did not have a parallel for those looking at apprenticeships. Now it helps those students with practice job interviews or writing a CV. “It’s absolutely right we have a brilliant Oxbridge programme,” he says, “but it’s absolutely right we have a brilliant apprenticeship programme as well.”
Indeed, he thinks industry ought to review the apprenticeship application process because it is too arduous. “We should be making it appealing and accessible. You almost feel there are as many hoops to jump through as going to Cambridge. Students find it quite a draining process.”
While he reckons around 95 per cent of JFS sixthformers opt for a standard university course, he believes apprenticeship degrees will grow. He cites the example of one student taking a BA in public sector management who combines two day’s study with three days work for a charity that is sponsoring his degree; he will graduate with much less debt than many of his peers.
A-level choices for JFS students remain pretty traditional with English, maths and sciences continuing to be popular. But in the current climate, “the arts are being squeezed. We are still running music, art and dance A-levels but running with very small numbers. I have to wonder what’s the future for those courses.”
That, he believes, reflects students being more “strategically-minded” about their A-level choices, looking closely at what subjects they might need for university entry. “They are looking to maximise their chances of getting into particular places,” he says. “When I was doing my A-levels, I don’t remember thinking about university entrance requirements. I went with A-levels I liked.”
But one creative option that remains available is the EPQ, the extended project qualification, equivalent to half an A-level which students can take in addition to their exams. “We have 60 to 80 sign up each year. It’s got a lot of appeal and some universities will make an improved offer with an EPQ because it really is an independent piece of work. It’s a bit left field — you can do a piece of drama, you can write a screenplay.
“It’s got that capacity to speak to people’s creativity in a way which perhaps traditional A-levels don’t.”
One challenge is to try to improve the take-up of A-level modern languages, which are also feeling the pinch. They are currently offered in Ivrit, Spanish and French at JFS but for a school its size (with an overall sixthform capacity of 550 a class of 10 in Spanish is small.
“The ambition is to try to increase those numbers and what we are offering,” he says. “The government wants to extend this notion of cultural capital but it seems to me a critical part of cultural capital is having a certain amount of familiarity with another language and the culture of another place.”
JFS students typically for degree courses such as law, English or business studies. And the universities with large Jewish societies — Leeds, Nottingham, Bristol, Birmingham — continue to attract applicants. But he was surprised to notice the popularity of Edinburgh. A colleague observed that the option of going to Israel was on the rise.
Another area the school has focused on is wellbeing. “We have had to think about what we are doing specifically for sixthformers because the pressures they face are not the same as the pressures lower down in the school,” he says.
“Are we making sure our young people feel properly equipped to go and be independent, whether that’s at work or at university?”
There’s a weekly wellbeing surgery where students can “drop in and bring to the table what sort of things they worry about”. The school has also produced a guide that signposts whom to talk to about particular issues. “Kids talk about their health and wellbeing in a way I didn’t. I don’t think it was as pressured [then]. I don’t think so many people were going to university, with all the associated financial costs.”
The greater concern for wellbeing partly reflects the social media age. “How do we safeguard young people from a very recent technological phenomenon? The difficulty is that it is people who have not grown up with it who are trying to safeguard people who are immersed in it.”
Sixthformers can use smartphones in “the Mez”, their common area, but for school business, such as checking timetables or homework, not social use. Using technology as an educational tool is also something students need to learn, he believes.
“It worries me that students can be very naïve,” he says. “They are not very good at judging what is an academic, scholarly response to something and what is just Joe Bloggs’s opinion he has just put on his blog.”
But even if classrooms now sport whiteboards rather than blackboards, he thinks schools remain “very old-fashioned… If William Shakespeare were to walk into this place, I think he would recognise it as a school. In that sense, they are quite monolithic environments. You are trying to be as diverse as you can in a structure that’s been pretty unchanged for a number of centuries.”