Sixth-form colleges have long been renowned for their impressive levels of efficiency and student success: a National Audit Office report published last year concluded that they outperform school sixth forms in most areas, despite receiving significantly less funding.
But TES has learned that, frustrated at the financial restrictions they are forced to endure, many sixth-form colleges are considering ditching the autonomy afforded by their prized self-governing status to become academies.
Principals are attracted by the prospect of no longer having to pay VAT on their spending, which Sixth Form Colleges' Forum chief executive David Igoe thinks would save an average-size college pound;300,000 a year, not to mention the higher funding levels and greater prominence that academy status is perceived to bring.
"Our colleges are really strapped for cash," Mr Igoe said. "We think the other driver for this interest is the feeling that under government policy, academies take the limelight. This would be a way of taking sixth- form colleges back into a sector that has full government support. This may therefore be an advantage when it comes to capital improvements and support."
Norvic, a federation of 15 colleges in the North East, has taken the first step by deciding to explore academy conversion; principals across the country are watching with interest. Mr Igoe believes that, once the first colleges take the plunge, a mass conversion will ensue. "If one or two actually pursue academy status, it will turn the tap on," he added.
Education secretary Michael Gove has been keen to promote academies as bringing more freedom and flexibility for schools, with more than 1,500 making the switch so far. But no sixth-form colleges have yet put their heads above the parapet, with many reluctant to take on the complex tangle of regulations schools must adhere to, not to mention risking their identity. "They would lose their distinctive brand; they would be just another 16-19 academy," Mr Igoe said.
But with almost 30 colleges having closed down since 1993, Stephan Jungnitz, principal of Wilberforce Sixth Form College in Hull, believes action must be taken. "We are a small and specialised group of colleges standing outside the mainstream," he said. "We are in danger of becoming a forgotten minority. It would interest me to become part of a recognised majority. I don't want to change the character of what we do or the way we operate, but operate in a different scheme with different structures."
Switching to academy status could also encourage more colleges to take on younger students. Wilberforce has already taken on a cohort of Year 10 students, and Mr Igoe believes more colleges could follow suit. "If we embrace the academy world, colleges will be more open to looking at the whole age range. But it could also make it less likely that they would want to compete with other academies," he said.
With the government already committed to closing the funding gap between schools and sixth-form colleges, the Association of School and College Leaders' general secretary Brian Lightman is unsure whether colleges would benefit from the change of status. "Colleges have much more freedom than schools. With funding being brought together, I would be surprised if converting to academies would bring a significant increase in funding," he said.
Gap in per-student funding received by schools and sixth-form colleges:
pound;100 - 2004-05
pound;389 - 2010-11
Number of academies: 1,580
Number of sixth-form colleges: 92.
Original headline: Cash-strapped sixth forms teeter on brink of mass conversion