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'The government wishes sixth-form colleges to come in from the cold'

The principal of Luton Sixth-Form College – the oldest sixth-form college in the country – reflects on its 50-year history, and what the future could hold for its fellow institutions

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The principal of Luton Sixth-Form College – the oldest sixth-form college in the country – reflects on its 50-year history, and what the future could hold for its fellow institutions

This month Luton Sixth-Form College is celebrating its 50th birthday. Whilst it is perhaps not a great age, compared with more ancient educational institutions, it is still of significance, given that Luton was the first town in the country to have a standalone sixth-form college.

The archives show that, initially, the scheme courted a considerable amount of controversy. However, the publication of Circular 10/65, requiring local authorities to convert selective schools into comprehensives, set the scene, and so it came to pass that our college took over the site of what was then Luton Grammar School.

Our celebrations have given us an opportunity to reflect on whether the "sixth-form college experiment" has been a success. For me, the data speaks for itself, and although there are now only approximately 90 such institutions in the country, it is generally recognised that we offer very good value in terms of the quality and breadth of the education we deliver, relative to our costs.

We are hopeful that Justine Greening, the new secretary of state for education, herself educated at Thomas Rotherham Sixth-Form College, will have an a priori appreciation of our value.

At a time when some local, national and international institutions are losing the confidence of the people they should be serving, it is relevant to consider what it is that leads to institutional longevity, and why some fail to survive.

'Heart of the community'

Some have a tendency to put the needs of members before the needs of the people they were designed to serve: they lose sight of their core values; their leaders suffer from hubris, complacency and a lack of courage, vision, energy and commitment to necessary change. They become distracted from their core purpose and sometimes they over-reach themselves. Failing institutions often suffer from poor governance.

Luton Sixth-Form College has always been at the heart of the community. It was set up to be inclusive; an engine of social mobility and a means of ensuring that all young people in the town, regardless of postcode, had access to the same high-quality education. In recent years we have fulfilled an important role in terms of ensuring social cohesion and demonstrating how an increasingly diverse community can prosper in harmony.

During the past 50 years educational ministers have come and gone, and their initiatives have, in many cases, come and gone with them, or soon after.

Recently, sixth-form colleges have become involved in area reviews and, as part of this process, are required to consider whether they wish to convert to academies.

Although, in theory at least, it is possible to become a standalone academy, it is becoming increasingly clear the preferred and perhaps only option is to either join a multi-academy trust (MAT) or create a MAT with local schools.

Sixth-form college success

It appears the government wishes sixth-form colleges to come in from the cold. Having moved from local authority control in 1993 to become incorporated and, in effect, independent, they are now being invited to come under the indirect control of central government.

There is no doubt that, for a variety of reasons, there will be a number of sixth-form colleges which will find it to their advantage to take this very significant step.

We are in the fortunate position of being able to take a long-term view, being long established within a relatively stable environment, operating at a relatively large scale and in a town where there is demographic growth due for the next decade.

There are many sixth-form colleges in a similar position and they will no doubt be carefully considering the risks associated with conversion.

After 50 years I believe it is possible to say the sixth-form college experiment has been a success. As for the academy experiment, running now for about 10 years, as was once famously said: it is too early to say...

Chris Nicholls is principal of Luton Sixth-Form College

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