The Government has published its long-awaited guidance for sixth form colleges (SFCs) becoming academies. David Igoe considers what this means for SFCs.
On the face of it there are headline advantages and disadvantages for converting to academies.
On the plus side, there is the extra money from the VAT rebate (available to academies but not SFCs that don’t convert) — about £350,000 per annum for each college on average.
There may be other financial gains like insurance concessions that academies benefit from.
On the downside, there is some loss of autonomy that comes with moving into the public sector.
They have strong pastoral systems and an approach to the curriculum much closer to schools rather than FE colleges
Academy status also means SFCs lose the ability to borrow on the commercial market and there are current legal and statutory difficulties over recruiting foreign and HE students.
There might be a way around the latter two difficulties and it may be possible for SFCs to continue these entrepreneurial activities.
However the real prize here, in my view, is the opportunity academy status brings to SFCs to be able to re-join the mainstream flow of education policy.
By becoming academies we get back into the Department for Education/schools/academies tent and have to be taken seriously as part of the 16-19, sixth form landscape.
SFCs have deep roots in the school system. They employ teachers not lecturers, with pay, terms and conditions almost identical to teachers in schools.
They have strong pastoral systems and an approach to the curriculum and organisation which is much closer, even after 25 years, to schools rather than FE colleges. Culturally, that is where they belong.
Incorporation, in 1993, wrenched SFCs from local authorities and placed them in the newly independent world of FE.
There were some gains from this. Most SFCs thrived with their newly gained autonomy and most have more than doubled in size in terms of student numbers.
Many have achieved wonders with their estates and now run super-efficient organisations that outperform the competition on all the accepted accountability measures.
In many ways SFCs were the trailblazers for the academy concept. They were schools released from local authority control and proved they could create autonomous self-improving, highly efficient institutions. They became the often-quoted “jewel in the crown” of state funded education.
The problem for SFCs since Incorporation has invariably been financial.
They suffered from the Government-imposed FE efficiency drive in the 90s and from the need to converge with FE funding levels.
This equated to nearly a 50 per cent cut for some and this led many colleges to have little option but to merge with other GFE institutions.
Since 1993, 30 have been lost through this process. Since 2010, we have experienced another funding onslaught with most SFCs now struggling to manage on 20 per cent less funding in real terms.
The current area based review process was predicated on “solving” this problem through creating fewer, larger and more robust institutions. We have been there before.
The autumn statement announcement (about possible SFC academy conversions) changed the focus of the area based review process.
SFCs no longer have to consider how they fit into the “fewer, larger” world of FE but now have the option to leave the FE world and become an academy.
As an academy, they come under the jurisdiction of the regional schools commissioner and can take their place on local head-teacher panels, which advise the RSC on all post-16 reorganisations.
They can foster closer links with schools and be part of the schools and academies improvement system. This makes far more sense than being part of an FE world driven by economies of scale and the need to deliver 3m apprenticeships.
This will not be an easy decision for SFCs. Change is never easy and always involves risk. But I believe this is the right way for our colleges to go and their best chance of continuing to prosper and grow.