Have Sixth-Formers Changed?

November 9, 2010

This comes from a discussion I was having here:


I was reflecting on the value of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, a system of means tested payments made to students in sixth-forms and FE colleges.

It occurred to me that in the last few years, I had noticed more and more A-level students doing part-time jobs which got in the way of their studies. It had always been very common for sixth form students to do Saturday jobs, but increasingly they seem to be doing Saturday, Sunday and weekday evening jobs making it very impractical to set homework to be in for the very next day. Some other teachers and lecturers I know have noticed something similar. I would be interested to know what anybody else thinks.

If I am right there are a number of possible explanations.

Firstly, this could be a result of the EMA. It has put cash in the hands of students who would previously have been dependent on their parents. It may have prompted a shift in culture among sixth-formers in favour of financial autonomy and greater disposable income, making even those students who receive little or no EMA more likely to want cash of their own and, therefore, more likely to get jobs.

Alternatively, it could be a result of the dumbing-down of the curriculum. Students doing easy vocational courses, or students who have recently done well in dumbed-down GCSEs, may simply have far lower expectations of how much effort is required for study at Key Stage 5, therefore the opportunity to work long hours is far more appealing than it would have been a few years ago. I think a lot of students doing A-level courses, particularly in more challenging subjects, do end up regretting the lack of time spent on their studies.

Another possibility, is that the increase in students from more deprived backgrounds has meant that there are more students in sixth forms and FE colleges who would be unable to support themselves during their studies without an additional source of income. In some ways this is a more obvious explanation, but the introduction of the EMA and the minimum wage should have counter-acted this to some extent, making it easier for those students to manage without working long hours.

I’d be grateful to hear people’s opinions. As a secondary teacher I don’t spend a huge amount of time with sixth form classes and I am aware that there are a lot of readers who are far more familiar with FE than I am.



  1. I think all of these factors are significant. I’d add one of my own: students in the last few decades have become increasingly aspirant consumers. As the line between childhood and adulthood blurs they naturally gravitate towards the things they desire, which is normally consumer durables, nights out and endless variants on single-person shoot-em-up games. They are targeted as never before by advertisers as the emergent market, and as tomorrow’s serious spenders. So I think that as their aspirations and desires have multiplied, so have their economic goal posts.

    Previous generations have had more clearly delineated markers to indicate maturity; coming of age ceremonies, both secular and religious, which indicated the transition into adulthood. Now we see children enjoying an extended period of infancy well into parenthood themselves; witness the odd parent at school evenings who asks you to hurry up because ‘Eastenders is on in a minute.’ Even young adults in their twenties and thirties expect a level of disposable income that our forefathers would have been expected to plough into savings, mortgages, householding.

    Essentially I agree with all of the factors you mention. I suspect that they enter the market place with greater abandon, younger, these days, because they already feel engulfed in it.

    • I think that’s it in a nutshell. Kids are so habituated into wanting and getting a constant stream of expensive new technology that these part-time jobs are the only way of keeping up with the Joneses. Top-of-the-range mobile phones on all-inclusive packages, the latest games consoles (all of them – gone are the days when you had your loyalty to Nintendo or Sega, now you have to have one of each), a vast array of clothing that is differentiated from other clothing only by a cheap logo (usually just a word printed big) and the massive price tag, and of course vast quantities of alcohol.

      This “must have now” culture is getting worse, and is not confined to kids. The number of people in their late 20s who I know still living with their parents because it allows them a more comfortable lifestyle is frightening. They could afford to live independently, but they would have to adjust their lifestyle (as every generation before them has done) and they are not willing to make any such sacrifice.

  2. Could it be that previously as these youngsters would have left school and therefore worked full-time, they are taking part-time jobs to subsidise what is a meagre EMA. When I was at FE college in the 70’s nearly everyone had a Saturday job and usually an evening job for one or two evenings as well. Only the drop-out from Westminster school didn’t from what I can remember! Not many worked on Sunday then as there weren’t any jobs.

  3. I took 5 A-levels and worked both days at the weekend in catering for most of that time (I did stop it running up to my final exams). I also worked one or two evenings in the week looking after children and through the holidays in catering. I have a medical condition meaning that I was in constant pain and exhausted from school and work, and struggled to walk – I ended up having to use a wheelchair later on. I got 5 high As (most would be A*s nowadays) in academic subjects.

    A lot of people care about immediate gratification of cash in their pocket rather than what matters to them long term, but it’s entirely possible to work
    a fair bit and do well at sixth form if you can be bothered. I wasn’t working every night, but it was still a juggling act, and my homework certainly got handed in when it needed to be regardless of which shifts I was working.

  4. Since more students go on to KS5 than ever before, this means that we are now reaching further down the demand curve, to include students who derive less value from the course than formerly.

    Many students who would not have gone on to KS5 formerly (when it was called A Levels) but gone and got a job, now get a worthless qualification instead of two solid years work experience and skills, simply because either
    a) their parents get child benefit, and they may get EMA, or
    b) they think, possibly wrongly, that employers value A levels. [1]

    Since the qualification is nearly worthless to them, they quite rationally don’t value it, but go and get work experience, and earn money at the same time.

    In short: We are educating people who derive less benefit from their course than they would from work experience. Many are there only because as well as paying for the course, we are bribing them to attend – a double waste.

    [1] They do in some cases, but you would be surprised how few value A Levels over practical skills or a proven willingness to work. Spelling matters, but that should be OK by KS4, no?

  5. I was interested to learn that this is a problem in sixth form. It’s been a problem in higher education, certainly since the introduction of the fees. These days I find that students deeply resent having to be on campus more than two or three days a week because it interferes with their work. As a consequence we deliver full time courses to students who behave like part-timers and I spend more time than I would wish chasing after non-attenders – students who simply refuse to attend classes on any day that clashes with work commitments.

    I think the picture is a little contradictory. On the hand, as Tom Bennett points out, this has to do with new patterns of teenage consumption, tied to notions of independence. But this changes at university where many students work to keep themselves. The introduction of fees and the end of students grants means that students have less time to spend on their studies, live at home and have become more dependent on their parents.

  6. The EMA is/was worthless. Students turn up to lessons to get EMA, Many have no engagement in class and were pretty much signing on by turning up to lessons.

    Those that are interested and KS5 material would turn up anyway, like they did before the EMA was introduced. It may encourage young people to stay in school and maybe out of trouble but they don’t get any extra relevant qualifications from it.

    I would have thought the EMA would have taken the pressure of getting a part time job, not increase it

  7. My best 6th former left last week. I teach Secretarial. She comes from a fairly poor family, and deserved her EMA as her attendance and work were exemplary. She progressed through 3 levels of exams in some skills, and was spending this year consolidating her successes. She was offered a temp job till Christmas – and I got the Head to agree it. She then got the opportunity to go full time and I let her go with my blessing, because the job market is very hard, and experience counts more than the higher level theory. I was due to meet her “replacement” yesterday. She had been chucked off another course for sheer laziness in not turning up for her work experience. She is only staying in school because mum doesn’t want her to be under her feet for another year – or to fund her.

    The two faces of EMA.

  8. I’ve blogged quite a bit here: http://contentedlibdem.blogspot.com/2010/11/apple-macs-for-all.html about EMA. I teach a lot of sixth formers and whilst there are one or two pupils who desperately need it and deserve it, they are few and far between. Most of the students I teach would stay on even if EMA was removed. Most of the ones who would leave if it was removed are only on the course for the money. Overall it is hard to justify. If you look at the comments of pupils on the Save EMA website this becomes clear.

    Regarding the point about time, a lot of students won’t have as many taught hours at A-level as they did at GCSE, but far from seeing their non-contact time as being for study, they see it as time they have gained. At the start of the course I think a lot of them therefore think they won’t have to work as hard at GCSE, which is of course completely wrong.

  9. Great blog. I hate to say it, but I thought the EMA was a bad idea.

    If people had high travel costs, I wouldn’t have minded a travel grant, but the 6th formers attending their local school to do A-levels do not have high expenses. This talk of ‘buying stationary and materials’ is a load of rot, unless one is doing a practical course.

    I have noticed a lot of animosity towards those in receipt of the EMA, especially those from well-off, yet self-employed families who don’t really need it. Those above the cut-off don’t necessarily have the funds or inclination to give their kids £30/week.

    I find it increasingly difficult to set work without giving the students a week to do it. It disrupts the progress of the class. I don’t mind them doing a bit of weekend work, but I know of students who are doing 25 hours per week in KS5. I’ll jokingly ask what they do with all their cash and it seems to go on expensive phones, Macbooks, going out and clothes. These are not poor kids trying to make ends meet. I’m sure that those who work more end up socialising more.

    Having said that, I’ve noticed that some adults have odd views regarding the commitment to education. I teach a girl whose school are running a ski trip, which departs immediately after a language exam, and returns a day before an exam for maths worth 30%. The school did not ban Year 10s from going. I’ve also had parents moan that ‘all this coursework’ interferes with the fact that they go on holiday every school break. They can’t understand why they fail their modules especially after they’ve been ‘revising hard for 2 days’.

    I think that students (and parents) would benefit from serious information about the commitment required for full-time courses. Full-time means just that, and a lot of time outside school should be devoted to study. Working and holidays are not an excuse.

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