After spending more the 30 years at the heart of sixth-form college life, David Igoe this week retires at a time of unprecedented change in the sector.
As chief executive of the Sixt- Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA), Igoe has long campaigned for his members to be allowed to become academies and return to the schools fold. His wish was finally granted by Chancellor George Osborne in November.
But the move that Igoe has fought for is likely to herald the fragmentation of the very sector he has spent his career championing.
“I doubt there will be a designated sixth-form college sector in the way we have got today,” he says. “It will inevitably fragment and evolve in different forms. I think we will see a core of sixth-form colleges that survive anything that is thrown at them.
“They will be still be there because they are valued by their community and are very resilient. I think we could lose, on the pessimistic side, another 20 to 30 colleges to merger with general further education or other institutions. So it will be a much smaller group of high-performing, good colleges.”
Allowing academy conversion will “change the landscape entirely”, offering new opportunities for colleges, Igoe believes. Importantly, institutions that choose to go down this route will no longer be part of the FE sector. “They will be in the academies world, which we think is the direction the sector ought to go,” he says. “Culturally, they never really left [the schools world]."
Igoe’s own route into sixth-form colleges was far from straightforward. Having suggested at the age of 8 that he might want to be a priest, he was sent to boarding school and spent eight years in a junior seminary.
It was not a happy time. Igoe recalls a “bleakness” about this period, adding: “Life is feeling guilty all the time and being punished on a regular basis because it makes you stronger.” He moved on to the senior seminary at Oscott in Birmingham, but two years in he decided that it was not the kind of life he wanted.
Education for its own sake
The educational experience that followed, Igoe says, was one that is not available to young people today. He spent two years at the Birmingham School of Architecture, before deciding that he did not want to spend his life “designing kitchens and drains”.
Instead, he opted to train as a music teacher, despite “never having sat a music exam in my life”. He adds: “I was given the opportunity to make lots of mistakes and I was able to indulge all of my interests. I wasn’t forced into a very vocational route from an early age, which is the direction of travel for education policy now. It taught me the value of education for its own sake. People don’t get that opportunity now, unless they want to pay for it.”
Igoe’s first job in education – as a theology teacher at Bishop Bright Grammar School in Leamington Spa – changed his view on teaching: “It was a free school in the old sense of the word. There was no uniform, it was totally student-centred. Everyone was on first-name terms, and you understood where you fitted in the grand scheme of things.” For Igoe, this approach to education made him feel like he had “died and gone to heaven”.
He joined the sixth-form college sector in 1982 as assistant principal, and later vice-principal, at St Brendan’s Sixth-Form College in Bristol. After being the East Midlands rep for the Sixth-Form Colleges Employers’ Forum (later the SFCA), he was elected as the organisation’s vice-chair and then chair in 2004.
The challenges after incorporation in 1993 forced sixth-form colleges to be lean, “super-efficient and effective”, Igoe explains: “That is why we still outperform all other post-16 providers who are publicly funded.”
But funding remains the biggest challenge for the sector, he believes. “Here’s the dilemma: there isn’t much between all the political parties and those that are interested in state education about what a good sixth-form curriculum looks like. The sad thing is that no one is prepared to pay for it,” Igoe says.
His take on his own retirement plans is more optimistic. “I’m going to just take stock of everything,” he explains. “I won’t become a couch potato. Neither will I take the king’s shilling and become part of the area reviews.
“I’m very aware that I have done my bit. I hope that I was the right person at the right time, but everyone has a use-by date, and I think mine is up.”