'Why I want my sixth-form college to become an academy'

22nd June 2016 at 11:55
New College Pontefract principal Pauline Hagen explains why she hopes it will become the first sixth-form college to convert to academy status

It's 25 November 2015 and a significant day for New College Pontefract. The area review commissioners are spending the day with us to evaluate our credentials as part of the process of rationalising post-16 provision. We are nervous, but keen to convey the message that we want to grow by converting our incorporated sixth form college into an academy so that it can sit alongside New College Doncaster and be governed by our multi-academy trust (MAT). In between meetings with the commissioners, we are keeping an eye on the live broadcast of the autumn statement, and are elated when we hear the announcement that as part of the area review, sixth-form colleges will be able to convert.

This day marks a milestone in a change journey which started in 2014 with an Ofsted outstanding judgement. From that point, we pursued an outward-facing strategy. In 2015 we were approved to open our first free 16-18 school, designated as a national teaching school and approved as an academy sponsor. By 2016 we were part of wider system improvement, supporting other schools with Department for Education funding and applying to open our second free 16-18 school, New College Bradford.

For us, re-designation is a key part of our future plans, and makes sense on several levels.

'This is the time to seize the moment'

Firstly, we have a moral vision about the entitlement of all young people to the very best quality education, regardless of where they live or their starting point. We know that what we achieve in Pontefract with our 2,100 students can be transplanted to other places with a similar demographic. Our vision is for a family of 16-18 schools across the North in towns where attainment persistently lags behind national rates

Secondly, there is an economic imperative. Shared services, including staffing, through a trust model mean that we can maintain viability in these years of tight fiscal discipline. It means we can offer a richer curriculum than we would otherwise be able to and can maintain healthy class sizes, providing a first class education which is good value for public money.

Thirdly, we want to feed our teacher and leader pipeline and recruit and retain the very best in a time of teacher shortage. MAT structures by their nature offer rich opportunities for career development.

Lastly, we want to align ourselves with government priorities and engage with the freedoms offered through recent legislation. It seems to me that, since incorporation, sixth-form colleges have occupied the ground between FE and schools and have not enjoyed the strong identity of either. We have endured several funding batterings and remain vulnerable. It’s a personal view that we are not as interesting to government as the new breeds in the education farmyard. I’ve often felt like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, hearing the music from the "farther room", but not being part of it.

My instincts tell me that it’s better to be an early mover, and have the chance to shape and influence the process of conversion. This is the time to seize the moment and sense the zeitgeist, to be bold enough to embrace the new. Not of course that this isn’t also scary. But our commitment to what is right for young people helps us to find the courage to be different.

Pauline Hagen OBE is principal of New College Pontefract. She tweets at @PaulineHagen3

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