Exclusive: general FE colleges could be allowed to become academies, DfE reveals

Stephen Exley

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General FE colleges could be allowed to become academies, according to a leaked document seen by TES.

The surprise move has been revealed in a provisional briefing for colleges taking part in the first wave of area reviews.

While the chancellor’s autumn statement revealed that sixth-form colleges would be allowed to convert to academy status, this is the first time the Department for Education has suggested that general FE institutions could also make the transition.

“The department is currently considering whether, exceptionally, applications will be [considered] from GFE colleges whose age range and curriculum offer means that their future and educational provision in the area might be best served by joining the academy sector,” the briefing states.

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, told TES that there had only been “very limited interest” in academy conversion from FE colleges.

“Each college should, however, be able to make their own independent and considered decision if they are given the option by the government,” he added.

The briefing is expected to form the basis for more detailed guidance on academy conversion for sixth-form colleges (SFCs), which is expected to be published in late February.

It also reveals that the DfE would consider:

  • an “educationally strong SFC with strong finances”, ie, one rated good or outstanding “both from Ofsted and for financial health”, becoming a sponsor and establishing a new multi-academy trust (MAT).
  • an “educationally strong SFC with sound finances [satisfactory or better] joining an existing MAT as a partner”.
  • an “educationally weak [ie, requires improvement or inadequate] SFC joining a strong MAT which has the capacity to drive improvement in the 16-19 education offer”.
  • a “financially vulnerable [ie, inadequate, borderline satisfactory or at significant risk] SFC joining a financially strong MAT”. This might include colleges under a financial notice to improve.

A college looking to become a standalone academy, independent of MATs, would need to be “financially and educationally strong [good or outstanding for both] and will need to set out in detail the range and scale of partnership arrangements between the new 16-19 academy, partner schools and other education providers in the area which will be developed if the proposal were to be approved”.

James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association, said the guidance “answers many of the questions that sixth-form colleges have about academy status”. He added that, despite the tight timescale caused by the need to apply for academisation through the area reviews process, “we think many of our members will submit an application”.

“We would not want the possible inclusion of GFE colleges to come at the expense of sixth-form colleges, particularly as there finite resources available through the restructuring fund to support academisation,” he added.

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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