Sixth-form colleges must not rest on the laurels of past successes, says Mark Bramwell. First up, let’s tackle the relationship with academies… 

Sixth-form colleges are proving to be robust with most achieving high success rates and good or outstanding Ofsted grades.

And most are oversubcribed – despite the demographic drop in the number of eligible students.

But we need to critically assess future options for this success to continue.  Looking ahead, some colleges are worried about being marginalised and about their long-term viability. The prospect of a 6 per cent funding cut over the medium term and increasing competition from new providers are serious concerns. I hope to address some of these issues at next week’s AoC annual conference where we will explore strategic issues with college leaders.

First, let’s look at our successes so far, including influencing government policy.  For instance, funding rates between school sixth forms and colleges are being equalised. Sixth-form colleges’ (SFC) capital funding is now largely in line with academies. The unfair higher benchmark used in SFC inspections by Ofsted is to go in March.

There are more inequalities to face, of course. However, with the national emphasis on value for money, high standards and social mobility, SFCs should be confident of more success.

Looming on the horizon is a growing debate about the relationship between SFCs and academies.  It is clear that the Department for Education and the Office of the Schools Commissioner are enthusiastic about SFCs sponsoring academies but currently only four  have such a role.

Should SFCs respond to the new political landscape through more involvement in academies, as is the case with general further education colleges? They would have a lot to offer having left local authority control themselves in 1993 and having flourished through self management and governance – although their small leadership teams could be an obstacle.

There is a concern that one day, perhaps under a future Government, academies could be returned to the local authority fold”

And should SFCs apply for 16-19 academy status? Some benefits might follow. For example, a VAT rebate could be worth £200,000 a year, but there is no guarantee that academy status would bring this; free meals could be available to eligible students and the academy brand is at the heart of Government policy. Would 16-19 academy status move SFCs to a position of greater influence? Would it bring quality improvement funds not currently available?

There could be a downside, of course. There is a concern that one day, perhaps under a future Government, academies could be returned to the local authority fold (or some other commissioning agency).

The SFC brand is distinct, but it could be lost in a sea of 3,000 or 4,000 academies (there are currently 2,400). Would the SFC sector divide into a two or three-way split over this strategic decision?

The old call for funding was for equity across school sixth forms and colleges. Today it is about calling for equity between 11-16 funding, 16-18 funding and perhaps post-19 funding. Currently a SFC student attracts £3,900, an 11-16 pupil over £5,000 and an HE student over £8,000. With less public funding SFCs might diversify their funding streams. Many already do with adult learning, higher education, international work or work-based learning. However, the challenge is to diversify and to keep an eye on the ball of ever-growing accountability for the quality of 16-18 teaching and learning.

Finally, in challenging times, can SFCs take a leaf out of the work of other organisations and collaborate even more with each other while remaining competitors? ‘Co-opetition’ would mean more strategic alliances between SFCs, more federated models or relevant shared services options.  This could help to retain the distinctiveness of SFCs while strengthening their ability to survive and flourish in the new educational landscape.

Mark Bramwell is the AoC’s associate director of sixth-form colleges