A move to link sixth-form colleges with their FE sector counterparts via a fast-track merger has been defeated in a knife-edge vote in favour of a more cautious approach.
Members of the Sixth-Form Colleges Association were split at their meeting on proposals for a swift marriage with the Association for Colleges. The result swung on six proxy votes, which were divided five to one against.
Although the association rejected proposals for "urgent" action at its annual conference, it backed talks with other bodies representing colleges on creating an umbrella organisation. It also agreed to appoint a full-time general secretary for the first time.
It means the sixth-form colleges are not automatically throwing in their lot with the AFC while the outcome of its present merger talks with the Colleges' Employers' Forum remain in doubt.
But a new 25-strong pressure group within the association which spearheaded calls to merge with the AFC believes the vote shows a swing in favour of a single voice.
Nick Brown, principal of Oldham College and one of the leading voices calling for change, said: "The writing is on the wall - the message is that we are going to move into one sector. I think there was a general consensus that we have to be part of what is going on at the heart of things. The only difference is the timescale."
The pressure-group members, who belong both to the Sixth-Form Colleges Association and to the AFC, believe the commitment to talks with other college organisations will ultimately secure their hoped-for AFC merger.
Another principal, not a member of the group, said: "Sixth-form colleges have had a fairly comfortable couple of years in terms of contracts, but now the pressure is on. I think there is a growing feeling that having two organisations speaking for the sector is no longer appropriate."
This week's harsh budget settlement, which intensified funding pressures in the further education sector, is likely to strengthen the case for a single voice so colleges can lobby ministers.
However, others in the association remain wary of plunging into an alliance with the AFC, led by chief executive Ruth Gee, while it is still jostling for superiority in its CEF merger discussions.
One principal said: "We are not prepared to be Ruth Gee's voting fodder. There is a strong feeling among members that sixth-form colleges should not rush into an alliance, and should think very carefully about what they can get out of it."
The decision to appoint a full-time general secretary also reflects concern among sixth-form college principals not to become subsumed in the larger AFC in a full merger.
The extent of sixth-form colleges' alarm over dwindling funding emerged in a fractious meeting with junior education and employment minister James Paice. The minister, who praised the colleges' "rather special ethos", faced a barrage of questions from the normally sedate principals over how their identity was to be sustained in the face of cuts.
One said later: "It shows the strength of feeling when the educators of Middle England are heckling a Tory minister."