Schools of the Year

State Sixth Form College of the Year

Hills Road Sixth Form College

By Fay Schopen

Choice is the buzzword at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge. Here, students can choose from more than 40 AS and A-level subjects, which can be taken in almost any combination.
But this dazzling array of subjects hasn’t left its 2,000 students blinded. They obtain remarkable academic results, helping to make Hills Road our State Sixth Form College of the Year.
For the first time, we are using a new measure to rank sixth form colleges: the number of students obtaining AAB grades in two or more A-levels in “facilitating” subjects. These are core subjects named by the Russell Group of universities as giving students the best chance of being accepted at university: maths, English, the sciences (physics, chemistry and biology), geography, history and languages.
In Hills Road’s 2012 results (on which our rankings are based) 37% of students achieved AAB in two or more facilitating subjects at Hills Road, six percentage points higher than any other sixth form college in the country. The college has continued to do well this summer with 34% of students at Hills Road gaining AAB in two or more of these subjects and 51% of all A-levels gaining A* or A grades.
Our new methodology rewards colleges where students take more academically challenging subjects, propelling Hills Road to the top of the Parent Power table of sixth form colleges.
Hills Road’s biggest department is in Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – and almost half of all students study maths.  Facilitating subjects are particularly important for those hoping to study a Stem subject at university as applicants are expected to have two or three under their belts. 
“Our advice to students is that having one or more facilitating subject is important, especially if they don’t know what to do next,” says Linda Sinclair, Hills Road’s principal. “But we make clear that what is most important is balance – pupils need to pay attention to their strengths and interests, and how subjects combine together. We find that many students very successfully bring other subjects into the mix, particularly creative subjects that will bring in different skills and abilities.”
Turning out well-rounded students is a particular focus for Hills Road. Sinclair says it is not unusual for students studying Stem subjects to be taking music or a foreign language at A-level as well.
“We believe very strongly in offering breadth as well as depth,” she says. The college is proud of its tradition not just for academic excellence but for excellent enrichment opportunities through extracurricular activities and clubs. “We have high standards, but not only in the classroom,” says Sinclair. There are about 50 extracurricular activities for students to choose from including student-led clubs and societies, dramatic and musical productions and 20 different sports with 40 teams competing regularly.
“Our holistic approach is really important – we want students to develop a range of skills and abilities,” says Sinclair, who has been at the helm of Hills Road for the past six years and at the college since 1998.  She says the success of the college is down to two maxims: respect for learning and maintaining quality in everything Hills Road does, including forging relationships.
“As principal, I am building on a very strong tradition. I believe it is our responsibility as a college to provide the opportunities and ensure the quality of those opportunities – and I can usually rely on the students to take care of the achievement,” she says.
Hills Road has been a sixth form college since 1974 and in 2011 it was named in a study by the Sutton Trust, a charity, as the third most successful school, after Westminster and Eton, in sending pupils to Oxbridge. 
Sinclair says that over the past six years the college has sent an average of 65 students a year to Oxbridge. She says Hills Road creates an environment of aspiration. “Students are encouraged to think about applying because they see others applying successfully, and they see that the support is there for them,” she says.
Academic success, says Sinclair, is partly due to the individual care and attention paid to students by her staff. The college has between 150 and 200 teaching staff including a team of 16 specialist tutors who meet students individually, helping them with all aspects of learning, from essay writing to time management. A careers department to teach students about the “world outside and beyond” Hills Road also offers one-to-one support to students.
This bespoke approach is so important at Hills Road that Sinclair says it must be preserved at all costs – despite the current financially challenging environment for state-funded schools.
Sinclair points out that the way educational provision for 16 to 19-year-olds is funded is becoming more restrictive. But by making other savings, Sinclair aims to continue to provide the same high levels of support to students. “We have made a strategic decision not to cut these things,” she says. “We are having to be very creative in how we manage the budget.”
The supportive ethos engenders a strong feeling of community shared by staff and students. Staff are encouraged to value students as individuals and treat them as adults.
“We want them to be thinking independently,” Sinclair points out. One way this is encouraged is through an extended project that all students must undertake.
This, says Sinclair, is a prime example of the college’s commitment to developing students as independent learners.  Students pick a topic to study in depth beginning in January of year 12, and finishing with a presentation to an audience in the autumn of year 13.
“We’re bowled over by what they achieve – they become experts in their chosen area,” she says.
Students are mentored by a staff member in small tutorial groups and on an individual basis, akin to studying at university.
Sinclair says the projects are such a success that universities are beginning to sit up and take notice. Both Southampton University and Cambridge University have reduced their grade offers for students predicted an A* or an A in their extended project, and Sinclair anticipates that other universities will follow suit.
“It really can demonstrate the quality universities are looking for in an independent undergraduate,” says Sinclair. She lists a range of imaginative extended projects produced by students including blogs, books, animated films, dramatic productions and even a vegetable sculpture.
“Students need to have the high grades but they can also offer up this broad experience – a  number have found that being able to talk about their extended project at an interview is very valuable,” she says.  
One student, Jessica Platt, chose to do her independent project based on her own experiences as a teenage patient in a local hospital. Recognising that the hospital didn’t cater as well as it could for young people, she wrote a booklet giving advice and guidance on how medical staff could communicate better with teenagers. It was a success, and has been passed on to local health authorities who are using it as a training guide in hospitals. Platt has been invited to speak at conferences and training sessions for healthcare professionals around the country and as far afield as Turkey.
It is this sort of can-do spirit that sums up the college. Sinclair says: “Hills Road is so fortunate to have staff and students who bring passion into the classroom every day.”

Previous winners

Select year:

Previous winners

  • 2014
    Greenhead College
  • 2013
    Hills Road Sixth Form College
  • 2012
    Winstanley College