Large-scale mergers may be needed among sixth form colleges (SFCs) to cope with looming funding problems, Sixth Form Commissioner Peter Mucklow has warned.
Mr Mucklow warned, in a letter to every SFC in the country on Thursday (July 16), that “the tough funding climate” will continue to “present challenges to many sixth-form colleges over the next few years”.
He said that a number of governing bodies and principals “will wish to explore” structural changes to avoid financial difficulties, which could include shared services, federations or mergers.
He suggested that such collaboration may need to be between groups of more than two colleges, stating that “structural change on a small-scale or on a single institution-to-institution basis may be insufficient or sub-optimal in the longer term”.
However, Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA) chief executive David Igoe History warned that “history suggests that mergers and re-organisation rarely achieve the efficiencies and improvements hoped for”.
He added: “Sadly, some high performing colleges are at risk simply because of their size and the fundamental inadequacy of the funding rate available to do the job.
“The SFCA will strive to both argue for appropriate funding and to support measures to minimise the impact of any further reductions which may be just over the horizon.”
He added that the SFCA is “working constructively” with the Education Funding Agency (EFA) to help secure the futures of SFCs.
“It is welcome, therefore, that some support is being offered to help colleges explore and consider structural changes as a way of maintaining the excellent work they do for their communities,” said Mr Igoe.
The Sixth Form Commissioner also said, in his letter, that EFA has a small fund available to support SFCs that are “intending to act to prevent intervention and support the longer term financial viability of the college.
“Sixth-form colleges are invited to apply to the EFA for a contribution of up to £10,000 towards… internal cost-cutting reviews/improving financial control, investigation of structural options to increase financial stability, and consideration of future strategic/organisational changes”.
He added that “should the bid cover collaborative activity between more than one sixth-form college, a higher amount may be considered”.
The letter added that “in one college [understood to be Totton CSC, in Southampton] formal intervention was not able to secure either college-led financial recovery or the necessary educational improvement.
“While a future for locally-needed provision has now been secured, this is not an experience we want repeated elsewhere given the resultant costs and the impact on the college’s community”.
FE Week revealed on June 22 that 1,700-learner Totton will “join with “crime prevention charity Nacro from November.
The decision was made after Mr Mucklow warned that Totton could no function alone, having been placed under Financial Notice to Improve by the EFA.
Mr Mucklow praised the overall performance of SFCs, in his letter, for continuing “to be successful and resilient overall”.
“This is good news for young people. Ofsted’s official statistics report the proportion of sixth-form colleges rated as good or outstanding overall stands at 83 per cent. For 2015 to 2016 allocations, total student numbers and funding per student both grew slightly,” he added.
The EFA was unable to comment on contents of the letter before publication.