The sixth-form college sector is considering whether to convert en masse to academy status to avoid being "squeezed out of the system", TES has learned.
The 92 members of the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum (SFCF) meet next week to decide whether to take the unprecedented step of giving up their incorporated college status and moving "inside the academy tent".
A National Audit Office report published last year concluded that colleges outperform school sixth forms in most areas, despite receiving significantly less funding.
But an SFCF report leaked to TES claims that colleges feel they are "not seen as part of the new vision for state-funded education" because of the government's focus on academies. Converting to academy status would also save the average college between pound;200,000 and pound;300,000 a year in VAT bills.
While the decision ultimately rests with individual college governing bodies, the forum is recommending an "all or nothing" course of action that could potentially mean all its members, which collectively educate 150,000 students, making the transition simultaneously next year.
In a briefing to members, chief executive David Igoe writes: "I have come to the view that the best interest of sixth-form colleges may be in aligning ourselves with the structures that support current government education policy and that means finding a place in the world of academies.
"This could maximise our influence and allow our sector to continue to grow and prosper so that future generations of young people can experience the transforming opportunities that a sixth-form college education provides."
Mass academy conversion would mark the most significant structural change to the sector in the two decades since college incorporation in 1993, which meant that colleges were no longer funded by local authorities.
If the colleges voted in favour of the move next week, there would then need to be detailed discussions with government. A final decision on conversion would be expected in spring 2013, according to Mr Igoe.
Chris Sherwin, principal of Long Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, said her governing board would discuss the proposals in December. "I am sensing a change of mood; principals are starting to take this idea seriously," she said. "I can understand why there is such a strong feeling that something has got to be done."
The sector has been compelled to consider the "radical" move because of "despair" over cuts and the disparity between school and college funding, she added.
The SFCF report claims that colleges receive pound;3,100 less funding per student than 11-16 schools. Because of cuts under the coalition, "nearly all colleges have had to reduce staffing and have made deep inroads into student support and enrichment programmes", it states, adding: "Unchecked growth in school and academy sixth forms could destabilise sixth-form colleges to the point where many will become unsustainable."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "We welcome the interest shown by the sixth-form college sector. In academies, teachers and headteachers, not politicians and bureaucrats, have control over how the school or college is run.
"We have introduced new provisions to allow sixth-form colleges to become academies. We will be meeting with the SFCF to discuss this further."
The move could bring the group into conflict with the Association of Colleges (AoC), which stands to lose a quarter of its members should the plans get the green light.
Mark Bramwell, AoC associate director of sixth-form colleges, said that some institutions are keen to convert, but this is "not the most pressing issue" for the majority. He warned that the SFCF's attempts to build a united front risk creating a division between those in favour and those opposed to conversion.
"We actually have more autonomy than academies do at the moment," he said. "If colleges become academies they will lose some of that autonomy - we can borrow money now, whereas academies can't unless they have very exceptional circumstances. I don't think it's the end of the road for sixth-form colleges."
Mr Igoe told TES: "The SFCF is making no recommendation either way on the question of whether sixth-form colleges should or could become academies. However, we are keen to have a proper debate about this."
Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said: "Sixth-form colleges are in a particularly disadvantaged position when compared with schools and academies. It is the post-16 funding crisis that lies at the heart of this, and it is the post-16 funding crisis that needs to be sorted out."
- 94 sixth-form colleges in England
- 92 members of the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum
- 150K students attend sixth-form colleges
- pound;200K-pound;300K annual VAT cost to colleges
- pound;3,100 gap in per-student funding between 11-16 schools and sixth-form colleges
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