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Sixth-form colleges consider academy conversion

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Sixth-form colleges have agreed to cultivate closer links with the schools sector and explore the possibility of converting to academy or free school status, TES can reveal.

At the summer conference of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA) yesterday, representatives from across the country agreed to back a new strategy that would seek to “unambiguously” locate colleges within the schools sector, rather than in their traditional place within further education.

Under one proposal, which TES understands was backed by about two-thirds of delegates, the SFCA will explore whether colleges could convert to become either 16-19 academies or free schools.

The controversial move is likely to require prolonged negotiations with the Department for Education. The idea was previously mooted in 2012, but colleges eventually decided to explore other options that would allow them to retain their incorporated college status.

While an academy conversion process is already in place, the Department has previously shied away from supporting sixth-form colleges interested in making the transition. This is believed to be partly due to the additional costs the government would incur. Colleges currently have to pay VAT, unlike schools. According to the SFCA, this leaves each institution facing an average annual bill of £335,000. The Liberal Democrats supported scrapping what colleges have termed the “learning tax” in its election campaign, but the policy has not been publicly backed by the Conservatives.

Colleges are also increasingly frustrated at being left in what the SFCA has described as “no-man’s land”, isolated from the government's flagship academies and free schools movement.

When contacted by TES, James Kewin, the SFCA’s deputy chief executive, confirmed that the issue of potential academy conversion was discussed in a private session at the conference.

“We need to be bold,” he said. “Doing nothing isn’t an option. We will look at how we can develop these ideas and present them to the government.”

At the SFCA conference, colleges decided overwhelmingly to support plans to “forge closer links with schools, academies and free schools”. 

The move, the SFCA has argued, would allow sixth-form colleges to gain greater influence through regional schools commissioners and headteacher boards. However, the majority of sixth-form colleges are members of the Association of Colleges, which also represents general FE colleges. TES understands that some colleges favour retaining links within the FE sector, rather than primarily focusing on schools.

Delegates at the SFCA conference also agreed to broaden membership of the group to allow it to become “the voice of 16-19 education”. The SFCA has allowed two 16-19 free schools – Connell Sixth Form College in Manchester and Salisbury Sixth Form College – to join, despite the fact they are not incorporated colleges. The latest move could pave the way for school sixth forms and other 16-19 providers to join the organisation.

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