DfE officially reopens academisation option for sixth-form colleges

The government has confirmed it will continue to allow sixth-form colleges to academise, two months after FE Week revealed the move was on the cards.

Converting to academy status, and in doing so enjoying the luxury of not paying VAT, has been a possibility for nearly all SFCs since November 2015.

Many took the opportunity during the post-16 area reviews, when the Department for Education’s £726 million restructuring facility was available.

We are delighted that sixth-form colleges will once again have the option to academise

But the option closed in March, and SFCs and their representative body the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) have been campaigning for this “arbitrary” deadline to be extended indefinitely.

In new guidance published today, the DfE confirmed they will extend this opportunity, and that they will offer a “support grant” of £25,000 to each conversion.

“We are now extending this opportunity to enable other sixth form colleges to continue to apply to convert to academy status where the conversion will make a contribution to academy programme,” the document said.

“A sixth-form college can become a 16 to 19 academy using the provisions of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which enable a sixth-form college corporation to dissolve and transfer its property, rights and liabilities to a new or existing academy trust.”

SFCA deputy chief executive James Kewin told FE Week his association was “pleased” with the move.

“We had asked the government to keep the door to academy status open beyond the area review process, and are delighted that from today, sixth form colleges will once again have the option to academise,” he added.

“To date, 23 sixth form colleges have become 16-19 academies and it is likely that more will join them in this post-area review wave.

“Conversion will not be right for every sixth form college, but it is important that institutions have the option to change their status when it is right for them, their students, and their local community.”

The DfE’s guidance explains that for some sixth-form colleges, with their “particular focus on high-quality academic courses”, becoming an academy and working more closely with schools within a multi-academy trust will be a “natural development, which can improve value for money through efficiencies and economies of scale, whilst preserving the distinctive character of their offer”.

Under the conversion rules during the area reviews, sixth form colleges were allowed to convert as a stand-alone academy.

But the new guidance states that from 2019, “we expect sixth-form colleges wishing to become academies to form a multi-academy trust with other schools, academies, free schools or colleges, or to join an existing MAT in order to add capacity to the system”.

“Effective MATs will need to have the capacity and ability to self-improve and to provide specific support to improve underperforming schools within their trust,” it added.

“You should discuss your proposals from an early stage with your ESFA case manager, and with your main contact for the process – a DfE academy project lead from the relevant Regional Schools Commissioner’s region.”

In terms of financial support, the document states: “Once the relevant Regional Schools Commissioner has given your application their approval in principle to proceed, you will receive a conversion support grant of £25,000 towards the cost of legal fees and other costs associated with becoming an academy.”

A group of 14 which are Catholic-run have, however, been completely prevented from converting due to their religious character, which would not be maintained under current government rules.

If they converted, they would lose protections in areas of curriculum, acts of worship and governance. The SFCA and Catholic Education Service have been trying to get the government to add a clause to the education bill to rectify this, but the DfE has not obliged.