FE Week reported last week that around 60 of the country’s 93 SFCs had registered an interest in converting to an academy. Bill Watkin reflects on their option.

Recently both Sir Michael Wilshaw (Ofsted chief inspector) and Sir David Carter (national schools commissioner) discussed with MPs the part played by multi-academy trusts (MATs).

Both agreed that they represented the best way forward for delivering improvements in school standards.

But both also agreed that too many were not yet good enough, and that there were not enough of them.

Sir Michael had wanted to write a report about them recently and, on examining the 973 already in existence, had struggled to find half a dozen which were better than mediocre.

Sir David’s team of regional schools commissioners has had to re-broker almost 120 academies – take them away from one multi-academy trust and give them to another – because the original was not having the required impact on improvement.

Sixth form colleges are currently considering very carefully the academy options that are available to them.

Many have a long and successful history behind them, with better exam results, giving better value for money, with a higher proportion of disadvantaged young people, than any other sector.

Ninety per cent of SFCs are good or outstanding and they have proven experience of running a business successfully.

But they have faced appalling funding cuts in recent years, with the result that their capacity is now seriously stretched.

In the ongoing area reviews, whose purpose is to look at the financial viability of 16-to-19 providers and rationalise provision where necessary, SFCs must demonstrate that their projections and forecasts are robust and reliable, and paint a reassuringly sunny outlook.

In this context, colleges are faced with some tough choices.

The highest-performing colleges can, for example, establish either a multi- or single-academy trust — both of which require colleges to have “well-rounded plans to support another school(s)”.

This is what the government wants back from colleges, in return for the VAT concession: colleges as system leaders.

Otherwise, they can remain a SFC; join a teaching school alliance; or set up a new satellite 16-to-19 free school.

Colleges in difficulties, financial or academic, have fewer options.

They can join an existing multi-academy trust or merge with another college (SFC or general FE) – meaning they face some loss of autonomy and identity either way.

Over half of SFCs have expressed an interest in taking up the academy option one way or the other — although this is often a holding position, rather than a firm commitment.

A single academy trust is, at least initially, an attractive option — no more VAT liability, limited loss of autonomy, relatively little change.

They are making decisions for a future about which they can only guess

A multi academy trust is considerably less straightforward.

If you set up your own trust, before partner schools join, you can set your vision, articles of association, and contracts.

Schools joining later will sign up to an already established framework.

If you co-construct one, you will be involved in negotiations, entailing compromises and concessions.

However, if you join an existing one, you will have to buy into its already established framework, and comply with its articles and vision.

Some strong SFCs, even with various options available, are thinking about joining an existing multi-academy trust.

They will lose autonomy, but are often attracted by promises that their curriculum and staff will be protected (the new arrangement won’t change things).

Other factors may be the quality of personal relationships (the principals get on well and trust each other); and shared vision and values (the principals share principles).

All the options involve a leap of faith. They are making decisions for a future about which they can only guess.

Joining a multi-academy trust might be considered attractive right now, but what of the future?

A new partner principal, with a different outlook, might strain relations, while a fall in standards might change a trust’s priorities and strategies.

Colleges must consider their options in the light of their own context and circumstances.

There is no one right answer. But system leadership, transforming failing schools, alongside the premium they attach to their independence and autonomy, are at the heart of their considerations.

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