It’s amazing how an unexpected policy shift can change the way people look at things.
Just three short years ago, the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA) was up in arms about free schools and academies piggybacking off their reputation.
These pesky 16-19 schools were shamelessly calling themselves “sixth-form colleges” when, legally speaking, they were no such thing.
But, in the light of the surprising decision by chancellor George Osborne last week to allow sixth-form colleges to convert to academy status, it seems that there may soon be quite a few more institutions doing exactly the same thing.
Sixth-form colleges have long struggled to carve out their own identity. When comprehensive education was rolled out across the country in 1965, the sixth-form college was one of the options offered to local authorities. Their existence as unique institutions for post-16 provision through the 1970s and 1980s ended only with the advent of incorporation. The 1992 Further and Higher Education Act rendered them legislatively indistinguishable from the general FE colleges with which they found themselves lumped, but with which many had little in common.
By and large, sixth-form colleges find themselves trapped between schools and FE colleges. Unlike school sixth forms, they can’t cross-subsidise provision with funding allocated to younger students. Equally, most are too small to tap into the economies of scale available to larger FE colleges.
In recent years they have arguably found themselves squeezed more tightly than any of their competitors in the post-16 marketplace.
And yet sixth-form colleges still possess an enviable reputation. As the National Audit Office concluded in 2011, they outperform schools and FE colleges “on most measures of student achievement”. The sector even has its own answer to the Russell Group of universities, with the Maple Group representing 11 elite colleges. Cambridge’s Hills Road and Winchester’s Peter Symonds colleges battle it out with the likes of Eton in sending the most pupils to Oxbridge.
Of course, to regard all sixth-form colleges as targeted at academically focused high achievers is a massive simplification. At the other end of the spectrum there are plenty of institutions known just as much for their vocational offering, with a broad curriculum closer to FE colleges.
As the SFCA and the Association of Colleges point out (see the article opposite), the chancellor’s announcement is unlikely to herald the entire sector seeking to convert.
Similarly, it is hard to imagine that institutions such as New College Pontefract, which has already made moves to expand into the schools sector, will not conclude that they would be better off aligning themselves more closely with the world of academies and free schools.
So while those with a nostalgic fondness for these remarkable institutions will be sad at the likely splintering of the sector, each institution having the option to choose its own way forward is no bad thing.
Any colleges hoping that academy conversion would give them a handy escape from the area review process will be left disappointed. But for colleges to be informed of this new opportunity only when some are halfway through their area review certainly appears like bad planning, and can only add to the confusion.
But, more than two decades after sixth-form colleges were plucked from the schools sector, they finally have the option of returning to what many regard as home. Of course, college corporations will be aware that there is much more to consider than saving a few quid in VAT. At stake is what could turn out to be the biggest structural change the FE sector has faced since incorporation.