Seizing Sixth Form opportunities

New Head of Sixth Form, Miss Ruth Taylor, on the many ways our girls can seize the day during their time in St Mary's Sixth Form, Cambridge

I am delighted to have joined the vibrant and successful St Mary’s Sixth Form, Cambridge. Sixth Form is an exciting and significant time for students, and one which I am thrilled to be part of.

The beginning of the academic year, and the start of Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth especially, is a great time to set resolutions and to be excited about new opportunities. Resolutions could be contemplated in each of the following areas: academic; extra-curricular; work experience and career preparation; and developing essential life skills, such as confidence, collaboration, or presentation skills.

In addition to working hard towards achieving excellent examination results, I am very pleased that our Sixth Form girls will have the opportunity to complete the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) during their time with us. The EPQ encourages students to work independently, strengthen their research, organisational and problem-solving skills, become more flexible in their thinking, and learn to reflect on their efforts. The girls explore a topic of their choosing – which can vary from ‘An analysis of the differences in the social construct of gender in culture and media in the USA and UK’ to ‘Technology as a tool to combat human trafficking’ – and develop their ideas to create projects presented in thorough written reports, presentation events, or creation of a product or artefact e.g. a computer game.

Rather than focusing on academic success alone, however, students need to look at their Sixth Form years as an opportunity to develop a greater understanding of the world of work and acquire a wider range of life skills. Our single-sex environment offers our girls a unique opportunity to build confidence, take on leadership roles, and investigate whichever avenues of academic or extra-curricular pursuit that interest them, away from any misconceptions about roles or subjects or hobbies being for boys. 

Getting involved with the Sixth Form’s extra-curricular programme is an invaluable way for students to develop these skills and grow in confidence. As you will soon discover, I am a huge advocate of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which requires students to participate in a physical activity, develop a skill, carry out a service and complete an expedition. We offer Sixth Form students the Gold Award (the highest level of the qualification), which provides students with an unrivalled opportunity to become more confident in facing new challenges, build new relationships, and experience operating in new contexts and with new people. It is also a fun and very memorable part of many of our students’ Sixth Form years, not least because rain and mud often feature in the expedition!

Students need the chance to experience leadership and teamwork if they are to hone these skills, and our extra-curricular programme delivers these opportunities in a number of ways.

Sport has really taken off in the Sixth Form in recent years – this year in particular we have a really enthusiastic group of girls and we are now fielding a Senior XI hockey team and a Senior VII netball team. We have entered the U18 County Hockey Tournament, which we have never entered before, as well as the U19 County Netball Tournament, which is only our second year. Additionally Sixth Form students are exclusively offered the opportunity to row – training on the River Cam and attending competitions across the country. ‘Sport for all’ remains the school-wide mantra, and is as true at Sixth Form as it is for Senior School. All students are able to try their hand at a number of different sports to find out which they enjoy and are confident in, with girls then able to hone their skills in their chosen sport as they progress through the school. Alongside the physical and mental health benefits of regular participation in exercise, the team games provide a channel through which students can develop leadership, confidence, and team working skills.

The same is true of our enterprise programme. This year we will be offering Social Enterprise as part of our formal enrichment programme and also as part of our commitment to service and charity. Through Social Enterprise, students will learn how to run a business, collaborate on an enterprise, and think creatively whilst raising money for a local charity. It will also be an important opportunity for students to gain practical experience of the world of work. Similarly, Sixth Form students take the lead on the school’s International Committee, which organises celebratory and awareness raising events, such as International Day of the Girl, the school’s International Food Fair, and the Chinese New Year party.

We asked Head Girl, Aisling H.B. for her top tips for making the most of Sixth Form – click here to read in full. One of Aisling's top tips was:

Balance between academic work and relaxation is the key to success. A good way of finding a balance is by participating in extra-curricular or lunch time activities, as many would have done during Senior School. Being able to highlight the clubs you’ve participated in is helpful for personal statements (particularly if they are relevant to the course you’re applying for – for example, I write and edit the school’s magazine and I am going to read English at university) but it’s also an important part of trying new things. Also, Sixth Form students are invited to start clubs, so if there is a club you really want to join but doesn’t yet exist – start it! I started a board game club.

Embracing these extra-curricular opportunities will help students extend their outlook and build up their portfolio of skills. I strongly encourage all students to extend themselves in this way. Build on something you have done before, or take up a new challenge.

Work experience and careers guidance are also significant parts of the Sixth Form experience. Upper Sixth students are currently working on feedback from their work experience placements, undertaken over the summer, which I hope will be very useful to the Lower Sixth as they begin to consider their placement options. We have a dedicated careers department located in the Sixth Form Centre, and I urge the girls to make the most of work experience and careers guidance opportunities to explore the multitude of pathways that are open to them beyond Sixth Form.

First hand and practical experience of different occupations is hugely valuable as students navigate decisions about university and their future careers. Sometimes the reality of a job is very different to the rhetoric, and through work experience students develop real love and passion for a particular pathway. Examples of this summer’s placements include a week at the Victoria & Albert Museum cataloguing European Clocks; time in the Landscape Design department at Mott MacDonald, working on a project for Crossrail 2; engaging in critical debates about current economic issues at the IEA Think Tank; and observing operations at a veterinary surgery.

As a new member of the St Mary’s School, Cambridge team, I am learning about the school’s history – how it was established by Mary Ward to provide girls with an education. I asked students what they thought about the school’s history and the first response was “proud”.

I look forward to hearing how proud this Sixth Form cohort will feel at the end of their time with us, from throwing themselves into all that the Sixth Form has to offer: academic progress and awards; new challenges embraced; contributions made to the school; and life skills developed, such as confidence and independence.