Academies are a hot topic at the moment, having featured prominently in the chancellor’s latest budget. Sixth-form colleges have been pouring over the pros and cons of academisation for some time, and recent developments will likely quicken the pace of this discussion still further. The question for these colleges is simple: "What’s in it for us?"
While the answer is far from cut and dried, there are various perks to highlight and logical predictions to make in favour of academisation.
- Stay ahead of the curve
In his budget, George Osborne outlined plans to convert all schools to academy status by 2020. The chancellor was forthright in his keenness to "set schools free" from local authorities, so it won’t be surprising if sixth-form colleges are asked to follow suit at some stage.
The Association of Colleges (AoC) has already recognised this, stating that academisation is "at the heart of current government policy" and suggesting academy status has the potential to move sixth-form colleges "from a perception of being marginalised to a position of greater influence". It’s certainly preferable to make this change on your own terms, so rather than wait until you’re forced to convert, you can put plans in place now to make sure you remain at the forefront of any new legislation.
- VAT exemption
Currently, sixth-form colleges must pay VAT on all "non-business expenditures", such as school trips. There has long been a campaign to allow sixth-form colleges to claim this money back. Schools and, crucially, academies are already permitted to do so under the Finance Act 2011.
Sixth-form colegess are of course welcome to keep fighting the good fight in an attempt to secure a level playing field when it comes to VAT. That said, converting to academy status could be a quicker and easier option, and it could potentially save your institution hundreds of thousands of pounds in the long term.
- Work with other colleges
In June last year, the Sixth Form Colleges' Association voted to develop closer links with other schools in their regions and explore the possibility of academy status. This concept of "academy chains" has also been highlighted by the AoC, which suggests that a collaborative approach could allow institutions to combine both professional and financial resources for the wider benefit of all concerned.
Some institutions might find it difficult to relinquish some of their previous independence. A thorough assessment of what you will get from joining forces with other academies in your area will help to allay any of these concerns and convince you that the compromise is worth it.
- A lot can stay the same
While academy conversion will certainly lead to many changes, a lot of day-to-day things can stay the same. For example, there is no need for academised sixth-form colleges to change their name to reflect their new status. There is no legal reason to stop referring to your institution as a sixth-form college upon converting to academy status.
You are also under no obligation to change your admissions policy. This is something of an anomaly, as while academy schools catering for the 11-18 age range are bound by the Admissions Code, converted sixth-form colleges are not.
Both of these factors have the potential to remove a great deal of upheaval and admin for your institution, and are worth bearing in mind as you weigh up the possible impact of making the academy switch.
These are just some of the issues that could influence your thought process as you contemplate a potential shift to academy status. It is certainly not a decision to take lightly, but it has become increasingly clear that this is a subject sixth-form colleges cannot afford to ignore.
James Riches is a guest contributor from Berg Solicitors, a Manchester-based law firm specialising in helping schools and sixth-form colleges that wish to become academies. He tweets at @J_E_Riches