Hands off our good name, say colleges
When Connell Sixth Form College opens in September next year it will bring together the academic expertise of a local grammar school and the sporting prowess of Manchester City Football Club, its two main backers.
But the college's opening is already mired in controversy - over its name. Despite being allowed to use the college title, the new institution will actually be a free school, and there are significant differences in terms of legal status and funding.
According to the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum (SFCF), this is just the latest example of free schools being allowed to brand themselves as sixth-form colleges, a trend that it fears will damage their reputation for success.
"Our members have worked hard to develop the reputation of the sixth-form college sector over the past 40 years and it feels as though these new providers are hanging on to our coat-tails," said SFCF deputy chief executive James Kewin.
"It is bizarre. On one hand, the government acknowledges that sixth-form colleges are highly efficient and effective institutions. But on the other, it is actively promoting expensive and unproven variations on the sixth-form college theme."
Alongside Manchester City FC, Connell Sixth Form College is backed by Altrincham Grammar School for Girls. Announcing the project's approval last month, even the Department for Education described it as "a co-educational 16-19 sixth-form college for 600 pupils in east Manchester".
But the SFCF's argument is not just about the name. Free schools are exempt from paying VAT, which costs an average-sized college about #163;300,000 a year, while also receiving higher funding rates. However, unlike schools, colleges are allowed to borrow money.
While just 94 sixth-form colleges are in existence, the title is jealously guarded by the SFCF due to its reputation for academic excellence. In order to strengthen the college brand, the forum is considering relaunching itself as the Sixth Form College Association and creating a "Kitemark" for "official" sixth forms.
"We are looking at ways to strengthen our brand and help students to distinguish between genuine sixth-form colleges and those that have simply put the name over the door," Mr Kewin said.
A report published last week by academics at the University of Southampton found that a sixth-form college student was 7.2 per cent more likely to gain an A* or an A at A level than a teenager of similar ability and background studying at a school. This supports the findings of a report published last year by the National Audit Office, which concluded that sixth-form colleges outperform school sixth forms in most areas.
But while colleges are proud of their success, many harbour serious concerns about their comparative underfunding - the gap between schools and colleges almost quadrupled to #163;389 per student between 2005 and 2011, according to the SFCF - and the government's focus on academies and free schools.
Rochdale Sixth Form College, which opened in 2010, is one of the newest "official" institutions. Last week it recorded a 99 per cent pass rate in its first set of A-level results. "Rochdale is undergoing some regeneration, and the college is one of the first visible signs," said principal Julian Appleyard. "We have become a real beacon for the town, and the sixth-form college brand has become very strong locally, as we have never had one before."
Connell Sixth Form College declined to comment on the naming issue. The Department for Education was not available to comment.
As one of the key partners in Connell Sixth Form College, Manchester City FC is allowing the free school to use new training facilities that are being built adjacent to its site.
The school will be responsible for educating 30 scholars from City's new academy, and takes its name from the family that founded the football club.