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Sixth-form colleges announce plans for landmark merger

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Two sixth-form colleges in the North East have announced plans to merge in a landmark move for the sector.

The proposed alliance between Prior Pursglove and Stockton colleges would be the first full merger between two sixth-form colleges for 17 years.

According to the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA), the last merger between two of the institutions was in 1998, when North Bolton Sixth Form College and South College, Bolton, merged to form Bolton Sixth Form College.

The latest move comes as further education and sixth-form colleges across the country consider their futures ahead of a wave of area reviews of post-16 provision.

The consultation period on the future of the two colleges, located 14 miles apart, starts today. TES understands the move was instigated due to the planned retirement of Prior Pursglove principal Judy Burton. The college was rated inadequate by Ofsted last year, but in March saw its rating improve to good – the same grade as Stockton.

Both institutions have been working together informally for two years, sharing staff and support services.

“This is a historic move, which will serve to benefit two of the region’s best sixth-form colleges,” said Margaret Hirst, chair of governors at Stockton.  “We have experienced a challenging educational landscape for a number of years.”

If the plans are approved, the merged institution would be the first new sixth-form college to open for five years.

SFCA chief executive David Igoe said moves towards closer cooperation between colleges were only necessary due to funding cuts affecting the sector. “Bigger isn’t better – it’s cheaper,” he said. “It’s an attempt by two colleges to preserve a curriculum model that allows the college to continue. Even on the present funding level, colleges struggle to survive.”

The proposed merger would mean “business as usual” for students of both colleges, Ms Hirst said.

“The only changes they will see will be positive; enhancing their education and their experience at college for the better,” she added.

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