Educate meets Mark O’Shaughnessy, director of sixth form at Formby High School to find out how he prepares students for the real world.
By Hannah Fowler
It’s at this time of year when students are debating their next step – A Levels or vocational qualifications? Maybe an Apprenticeship? Sixth Form or College? For director of sixth form Mark O’Shaughnessy, there’s no place like Formby High School.
“I say to students you’ve had such a great time with us, why would you then want to go anywhere else? The atmosphere here, I’m constantly taken aback at what I see happening around the school, even after 20 years I say wow!”
Catering to over 270 students, FHS Sixth Form prides itself on its high level of care and support. “We have a dedicated team whose aim is to produce well rounded, kind, academically able students,” says Mark. “Our strapline this year is Be One of Us.”
And their approach seems to be paying off. The school picked up the Most Inspirational 16-18 Education Provider Award at last year’s Educate Awards, reflecting the high levels of teaching and learning at the Sixth Form.
“We had an absolute ball, the whole evening was fantastic,” says Mark. “We were genuinely thrilled to have won it. I decided it was the right time to do a bit of dad dancing on the red carpet!
“It is absolutely a team effort. Everyone at the school works hard to support our 11 to 18 year olds on a daily basis, so the [award] was a real recognition of that.”
Starting at the school 20 years ago as head of English, he soon side-tracked to director of Sixth Form. “It was an area that I was interested in and the opportunity presented itself,” explains Mark. “I’ve always had that belief, even going back to the days before I was a teacher, that if you get these 16 year olds you can change their lives.”
In fact, Mark worked in social security for a number of years before meeting his now wife, who claimed he looked like a teacher. “To this day she swears down I was wearing a corduroy jacket, à la Ken Barlow.”
Not wanting to disappoint, Mark went to night school to get another A Level and enrolled on a PGCE course. “It did strike me, in a noble way, that there was more I could do to go out and change things for the world,” he explains.
“When I joined as head of sixth form we had less than 90 [students] and it’s increased over time as the school has grown and got more popular.
“We have had our highest ever numbers over the past two years. We’re delighted by that. There is a large proportion from our own year 11 and increasing numbers from outside of school, from all over the place.”
Guiding students through their time at Sixth Form is no easy task, what with exam pressures and stress, not to mention all the worries outside the classroom.
That’s why Mark and his team focus on all aspects of a student’s progress, both academically and pastorally. “The challenges for 16-18 year olds are greater than they have ever been,” he explains.
“The pressures that they are under are immense. So we have got to work even harder to support them, protect them, guide them and advise them because that is part of our job now.
“It’s not just about standing in front of a group of kids and teaching them things, you’ve got to work with them, be a role model to them and be a person that they can come down and talk to and tell you what their issues are.
“You know what they say, you always remember your best teacher. We’re in a very privileged position in that respect.”
FHS Sixth Form understands the so called ‘traditional’ route (A Levels then University) isn’t right for everyone. The Sixth Form offers a wide range of academic and vocational qualifications, including 20 A Level and five Level 3 vocational courses. Those applying for university are guided through UCAS, as are those wishing to follow an alternative pathway including employment or a higher apprenticeship.
“We are an inclusive Sixth Form, we cater for different pathways and are particularly keen on FHS students remaining with us – which they do in large numbers. We need to respond to different challenges, hence the introduction of the BTEC Engineering course and a switch to the Digital Media course.”
Careers advice is a strong focus of the Sixth Form with students experiencing everything from formal interviews, a chance to meet professionals and go on career experience weeks. Students also have access to the Unifrog careers programme and can schedule individual sessions with careers advisers.
Students’ personal growth and development is also celebrated through its FHS Baccalaureate, says Mark. “The Baccalaureate is a certificate whereby we’re saying that you’re academically able, you do your citizenship, you participate in the community, you do enrichment activities and you extend your learning.
“It’s a recognition of what the students do and what we offer.”
A new year and new term brings with it plenty of motivation and things to look forward to. “We are nearing the end of the first phase of our FHS Baccalaureate and we have some plans afoot to try and celebrate that,” says Mark.
“We’ve already had huge numbers of students applying to us for Sixth Form so we are looking forward to September and seeing our biggest ever numbers and growing even further.
“We’re also absolutely delighted to hear the news that two students have had offers from Oxford University, we’re made up for them.”
Ultimately, says Mark, “It’s about being able to celebrate the success of very hardworking, nice human beings.” That’s definitely a New Year’s resolution we can get behind.