Skills Minister Nick Boles clears up area review question for sixth form college academies

Skills Minister Nick Boles has outlined how post-16 education area reviews will provide the means for sixth form colleges (SFCs) to become academies.

Chancellor George Osborne’s announcement in last month’s Budget that sixth form colleges could become academies and thereby stop paying VAT led to speculation that such change in status might be a way to avoid the reviews.

With no school or academy listed as automatically involved in any of the seven area reviews announced so far, it was thought that dropping the SFC status might provide an exemption.

However, in response to a parliamentary question from Conservative MP Bob Blackman, Mr Boles said any SFC conversion plans would be addressed alongside other area review outcomes, and added that colleges choosing not to convert would face further scrutiny.

“We will give sixth form colleges the opportunity to establish themselves as 16-to-19 academies as part of the area reviews of post-16 education and training,” said Mr Boles.

“When a college’s application is approved, it will be eligible for VAT reimbursement as soon as it has been re-established with 16-to-19 academy status,” he added.

“Once all the area reviews have been completed, we will of course review which SFCs have not yet taken up the option and what course they want to take.”

It has led to a call for the seven area reviews already under way to be extended to allow the 33 SFCs involved to “develop their plans and understand the finer detail of conversion”.

But just days after Mr Boles’s answer to Mr Blackman, Education Minister Lord Nash said he expected the number of SFCs becoming academies to be in “double figures”.

There are currently 93 SFCs which educate around 160,000 16 to 19-year-olds, therefore his estimate, aired at the House of Commons Education Select Committee meeting on December 2, could theoretically mean all SFCs converting.

James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association, said he welcomed the news his members would be able to apply for academy status via area reviews.

“Academy status is a great opportunity for some SFCs, but governing bodies will want to see the formal guidance that is expected in February 2016 before making a decision on whether to convert.

“It would be helpful if the first wave of reviews was extended to allow the SFCs involved more time to develop their plans and understand the finer detail of conversion.”

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) spokesperson said: “We recognise the urgency for sixth form colleges in the first wave of reviews.

“We will be working with these colleges to ensure that they have the opportunity to develop information to support an application and can begin preparing applications in advance of publication of detailed criteria in February, while continuing to be a key player in the local review to secure the best outcomes in their area.”

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