But the recent FE white paper emphasises their distinctiveness and successes and calls for their expansion. This has delighted the colleges, most of which are at bursting point and have waiting lists.
As well as expanding existing colleges, we at the Sixth Form Colleges'
Forum want to see new ones open, particularly in those areas where there are none.
The image of our colleges as elite and selective institutions has finally given way in the white paper to an acknowledgement of the breadth of what is offered.
We believe all 16-year-olds should have the choice of a sixth-form college within easy travelling distance. The forum will, therefore, be taking an active role in competitions to set up 16-19 institutions. We are already making contact with local learning and skills councils and other providers where such competitions have been announced.
The white paper says the option of an independent sixth-form college will now have to be considered locally. So, where appropriate, the forum will submit a proposal to establish one. To back such bids, the forum is seeking sponsors. To help us deal with charitable organisations, we are creating a charitable trust.
Local discussions have already made considerable progress in the first wave of competitions. In these and future competitions, the forum will offer specialist advice and encourage the development of separate sixth-form institutions even if that college or centre stays under local education authority control. We want to ensure that any such 16-19 specialist "schools", can be part of the sixth-form college community.
With this in mind the forum has changed its constitution to allow a new category of associate members. This will cover 16-19 institutions that are either independent of the sector, such as a local authority sixth-form college, or one that is not independent but sticks to standard sixth-form college pay and conditions.
Associate membership will enable such colleges to communicate with organisations facing similar challenges.
The forum wishes to liaise with other key partners in the 14-19 sector and will look to work with local children's trusts, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust and the Association of School and College Leaders, among others.
Sixth-form colleges are flattered by the number of other 16-19 centres that have adopted the description "sixth-form college" when, strictly speaking, they are not.
But, we want to distinguish members of the forum and so we will be developing a "badge" that can only be used by forum members to show which institutions are "real" sixth-form colleges.
The white paper promised: "We will ensure a distinctive policy focus within the Department for Education and Skills and the LSC on the sixth-form colleges group, to understand their particular needs and work with them to implement these proposals."
Sixth form colleges at last feel recognised, understood and valued and are looking forward to the future. Our forum will continue to support and extend the sixth-form college sector, building a network of contacts and partnerships that will mirror the contacts and collaboration that will be necessary to implement the Government's 14-19 agenda.
Sue Whitham is head of the secretariat of the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum