FEfocus Editorial - Competition may snuff out excellence
The jury is out so far on whether colleges should sponsor schools becoming academies, as Barnsley College makes the latest, most dramatic proposal (page 25). But then the jury is still out on the academy system, which has yet to entirely reconcile somewhat conflicting purposes: to bring in new expertise in school governance, but also to serve as a vehicle to encourage competition.
Colin Booth, Barnsley's principal, said the issue appeared to be still unresolved for the Department for Education. He said: "Do they want excellence in every area of the country or do they want competition, and are the two things the same?"
The pioneer of academy sponsorship was Barnfield College in Luton. The model there rested on its expertise: it could offer new subjects to engage students and guarantee progression, offering real prospects for students who may have previously felt at a dead end in what were 11-16 schools.
But critics argued that it relied on easier vocational GCSE-equivalents to hit targets. Certainly, its EBac results, based on the numbers achieving five A-C grades in traditional academic courses, were poor last year.
In some ways, this reflects a philosophical difference between colleges and the schools system. David Gibson, the former Association of Colleges chief executive who turned troubleshooter for failing institutions, used to say that the key element for improvement was getting the right students on the right courses at the right level.
The idea that offering someone a course on a lower level is "dumbing down" rather than helping them up a ladder of progression is alien to FE. It is better for someone to achieve a bit than to fail altogether.
Schools have to contend with an entirely different environment where anxiety about standards rules all. It is into that new world that Barnsley is hurling itself. And in bringing together primaries and secondaries under a college umbrella it sets itself another enormous challenge.
But part of Mr Booth's strategic vision is in recognising a potential threat which other tertiary colleges in particular will surely be watching closely. That threat is the effect unchecked competition can have on the economies of scale which are vital for good sixth-forms.
Mr Booth suggests that consolidation is the likely long-term result of competition. Just as after incorporation in 1992, smaller colleges gradually became subsumed into larger ones, then single academies will look to the protection of bigger partners. But in the meantime, newly formed academies will be able to create new sixth-forms at will, potentially dragging down the performance of everyone in the area by fragmenting student groups and reducing course choice for years.
It remains to be seen how far the expertise of colleges can offer something new to improve the schools sector. But the fact that the threat of competition has prompted a college to such drastic measures as offering to create a multi-academy trust for all its local schools is testimony to the danger.
That this comes from a college rated outstanding should make ministers pause, because Barnsley should not have much to fear if quality was the issue. Unfortunately, they are likely to see its embrace of academies as an endorsement of their approach, competition and all - when, to return to Mr Booth's phrase, the emphasis should be on excellence for all.