Colleges are being offered hundreds of thousands of pounds to sponsor 400 failing primary schools that will be forced to convert to academy status over the next year.
In contrast to the hostility aroused by forced conversions involving academy chains, such as the case of the former Downhills Primary in North London, the Office of the Schools Commissioner (OSC) believes colleges could be seen as a "friendly option" by struggling schools.
Commissioner Elizabeth Sidwell told the Association of Colleges (AoC) annual conference in Birmingham last week that its members "have the trust of your local communities" and could play a key role in tackling "chronic underperformance" in the primary sector.
For each forcibly converted primary school that they agree to sponsor, colleges stand to receive up to pound;355,000. At present, 54 FE colleges are on the list of approved academy sponsors - 33 of these have already teamed up with at least one school.
But Dr Sidwell said there is room for colleges to have an even bigger influence in the academies programme, with Prime Minister David Cameron announcing plans this month for 400 of the lowest-performing primaries to be paired up with sponsors by the end of 2013.
Martin Church, a sponsor development adviser at the OSC, told delegates at the AoC conference: "You are embedded and part of your community. You are often seen as a good option, a friendly option as opposed to an external body that sometimes comes in and takes over the local schools."
While admitting that many colleges' "automatic preference" would be to work with a secondary, Mr Church said college principals should turn their attention to the lower age range. "What you miss sometimes is that already you are providing early years experience, often with your creches, with your nurseries, with the training that you're doing with young people," he said.
The Department for Education has already forced through more than 300 academy conversions for low-performing primaries. Earlier this month, Mr Cameron announced plans to expand the scheme. "Now we want to go further, faster, with 400 more underperforming primary schools paired up with a sponsor and either open or well on their way to becoming an academy by the end of next year," he said. "It is simply not good enough that some children are left to struggle in failing schools when they could be given the chance to shine."
Mr Church told AoC delegates that ministers are "increasingly" asking the OSC to turn to forced conversion. "We have some powers in the case of chronic underperformance where we can force a school to become an academy with a sponsor. That's something that in your community, if you're interested, we can certainly talk to you about," he said.
The Department would make a "significant amount of funding" available in cases of primaries where "there's an awful lot that needs to be done", he added. According to a pack handed out to delegates, this includes pound;120,000 up front to cover "pre-opening costs" such as developing the curriculum, legal advice and appointing new staff.
In addition, sponsors could receive up to pound;135,000 depending on the number of empty places at the school. They would also benefit from up to pound;50,000 for new teaching resources, and another pound;50,000 for "environmental improvement" at the primary. For primaries where less intensive support is needed, such as those achieving test scores just below the floor target, sponsors can still expect to receive pound;65,000.
The application process for academy sponsors is now "very light touch", Mr Church said. "(If) you phone me this afternoon or you send me an email, theoretically you could be approved by the end of next week," he added.
Debbie Ribchester, senior policy manager at the AoC, said: "We think it is better that sponsors have existing educational experience, and colleges are good candidates as they are already at the heart of the local community.
"This means that the sponsorship of primary academies is a logical step for colleges who are already involved in secondary-level academies. It is also reassuring to see that costs will be covered by government, but this is a process that should not be driven by incentivisation."
But Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "Colleges serve a very diverse group of learners but adding in primary school children would be a step too far. Colleges do not have the expertise or the extra capacity to take on the responsibility of sponsoring failing primary schools."
LEADING THE WAY
54 - Number of FE colleges approved to sponsor academies.
33 - Number of approved colleges already sponsoring academies.
400 - Number of primaries to be forcibly converted to academy status by the end of 2013.