The creation of a single voice to speak for the entire further education sector looks closer than ever after sixth-form college leaders recommended merger of their organisation with the new colleges superbody.
The Sixth-Form Colleges Association (APVIC) has hammered out terms under which it would come under the wing of the Association of Colleges, a year after it narrowly rejected the move.
However, even if the merger goes ahead, the sixth-form colleges would still retain their separate employers' body, at least for the time being.
The proposed APVIC-AOC link-up, being recommended to members by the APVIC national executive, represents an acknowledgement by sixth-form college leaders that their voice could go unheard on funding and curriculum issues unless they align themselves with the largest college organisation.
Under the merger terms, sixth- form colleges would be allocated a total of four seats on the AOC board. At present they have just one - held by Oldham Sixth Form College principal Nick Brown - in recognition of the fact that some 30 sixth form colleges belong to both AOC and APVIC.
The composition of the board will be re-examined when the AOC's constitution comes up for review in 1999.
If APVIC agrees to merge, AOC will also set up an interest group to take charge of policy consultation on issues relating to 16-19 full-time students - in FE and tertiary institutions as well as in sixth-form colleges.
An AOC director, John Brennan, would take on responsibility for representing the interests of the same student group if the merger goes ahead.
The merger conditions, set down by APVIC, were all accepted by AOC during what are understood to have been smooth negotiations this autumn.
However, APVIC failed to win concessions over its earlier call for a reduced AOC subscription rate for sixth form colleges on the grounds that they would not be making use of the larger organisation's services as an employers' body.
The sixth form colleges use their own employers' forum to negotiate staff pay and conditions, and reached agreement in 1994 on the contracts issues which still divide the rest of the sector.
If they agree to merger at their annual meeting later this month, sixth form colleges will join the AOC's banded subscriptions scale.
Sue Whitham, head of secretariat at the sixth form colleges' employers' forum, said colleges had shown no desire to see the forum merge with AOC. She said: "They view us as successful and see no reason to change. We have seen through all the reforms they wanted with the minimum of hassle."
For the APVIC leadership, the merger recommendation marks the culmination of a full-scale policy turn-round. Last year, members narrowly defeated an internal move to include the organisation in the new AOC - being created from the merger of the Association for Colleges and the Colleges' Employers' Forum.
Afterwards, APVIC leaders initially insisted they would stay separate, fearing merger would see them lose their distinctive influence over the 16-19 age group, but then changed their minds and tried unsuccessfully to join at the eleventh hour.
APVIC chairman Howard Clarke, the principal of Stockton Sixth Form College, insisted the merger terms would ensure the interests of 16 to 19-year-old students were protected as the sector embarked on funding and curriculum battles.
He said: "We recognise the advantages of having one association that can speak on behalf of colleges with a unified voice."