The move to allow sixth-form colleges to convert to academy status will lead to the fragmentation of the sector, experts have predicted.
In his Autumn Statement last week, chancellor George Osborne announced that sixth-form colleges would be allowed to become academies for the first time, and even to join a multi-academy trust.
But while some colleges have expressed enthusiasm for conversion, others are keen to cling on to the autonomy provided by incorporated college status.
The likely outcome is that the “sixth-form college family will separate”, according to Mark Bramwell, associate director for sixth-form colleges at the Association of Colleges (AoC).
TES can also reveal that applications for academy status will be managed through the area review process.
With some institutions already halfway through their reviews, guidance issued by the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA) said that this move had introduced a “degree of urgency to the process”, adding: “There is no guarantee that academy status will still be available to sixth-form colleges once the reviews have concluded.”
Full government guidance on academy conversion is not expected to be published until February, but the SFCA has told its members that applications will be assessed on “the strength of existing and future collaborative relationships with other providers, particularly schools and academies”.
One of the key benefits for colleges that make the transition to the school sector would be a refund of their VAT costs, which currently stand at an average of £317,000 per year.
There could also be the possibility of colleges receiving government assistance to clear their debts, collectively estimated to stand at £120 million.
But Mr Bramwell warned that academy conversion could prevent colleges from offering higher education courses and recruiting from overseas which, in some cases, earn them more money than they currently have to pay on VAT. They would also lose their ability to borrow money commercially.
This is an edited version of an article in the 4 December edition of TES. Subscribers can view the full version of this story here. Read the full coverage in this week's TES magazine, available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here