The move to allow sixth-form colleges to convert to academy status will lead to the fragmentation of the sector, experts have predicted.
In his Autumn Statement last week, chancellor George Osborne announced that sixth-form colleges would be allowed to become academies for the first time, and even to join a multi-academy trust.
But while some colleges have expressed enthusiasm for conversion, others are keen to cling on to the autonomy provided by incorporated college status.
The likely outcome is that the “sixth-form college family will separate”, according to Mark Bramwell, associate director for sixth-form colleges at the Association of Colleges (AoC).
TES can also reveal that applications for academy status will be managed through the area review process.
With some institutions already halfway through their reviews, guidance issued by the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA) said this move had introduced a “degree of urgency to the process”, adding: “There is no guarantee that academy status will still be available to sixth-form colleges once the reviews have concluded.”
Full government guidance on academy conversion is not expected to be published until February, but the SFCA has told its members that applications will be assessed on “the strength of existing and future collaborative relationships with other providers, particularly schools and academies”.
Tempting tax break
One of the key benefits for colleges that make the transition to the school sector would be a refund of their VAT costs, which currently stand at an average of £317,000 per year.
There could also be the possibility of colleges receiving government assistance to clear their debts, collectively estimated to stand at £120 million.
But Mr Bramwell warned that academy conversion could prevent colleges from offering higher education courses and recruiting from overseas which, in some cases, earn them more money than they currently have to pay on VAT. They would also lose their ability to borrow money commercially.
He added that 13 sixth-form colleges are involved in major HE work, with six more engaged in “significant” international recruitment.
While the SFCA had previously lobbied in favour of all its members converting en masse, deputy chief executive James Kewin said that it would be “absolutely up to the individual [sixth-form college] to decide” whether to pursue academisation.
Mr Bramwell added: “Some may apply and be successful, some will apply and won’t be successful, and some won’t apply at all. What we are going to see is that the sixth-form college family will separate in different ways.”
Both the AoC and SFCA told TES that they expected academy conversion to be closely linked to the area review process. “I believe some principals thought this was a way to be shielded from the area reviews, but I don’t believe that to be the case,” Mr Bramwell said.
Whether academisation will offer a route out of debt for colleges is also not yet clear, he added. “My personal view is that in the current climate, it would be unlikely for the Treasury to write off many millions of pounds of debts,” he said.
He said that he believed it would be difficult for colleges with a lot of debt to be successful in their application to academise.
Roger Brown, chair of the corporation of Barton Peveril Sixth Form College, said that while he agreed colleges should have as much choice over their future as possible and his college had not yet made a decision about its status, he was concerned that academisation may lead to the loss of independence. “Sixth-form colleges could not only be losing their independence to the secretary of state, but also to some regional academy trust,” he added.
While the majority of sixth-form colleges are members of both the SFCA and AoC, under the membership rules of the latter they would not be able to remain members if they became academies, leading to the prospect of the organisation losing up to a quarter of its members.
Mr Bramwell said the AoC’s board would have to decide whether to change the rules to allow them to remain members.
‘An exciting new landscape’
At present, New College Pontefract is not able to join the academy trust it created. The trust was founded as a vehicle to allow it to become the first sixth-form college to open its own 16-19 free school, which is due to open in Doncaster in 2017. But the announcement by chancellor George Osborne means that New College could now become an academy – and finally join its own trust.
“We think it is a way forward for our college,” says principal Pauline Hagen. “It makes us much more financially viable for the future, and it means we can form a trust and help and support other colleges.” The change would make it easier for the college to set up more free schools and support failing local schools, Ms Hagen adds. “It is not just about the VAT. That is lovely, that is the hundreds and thousands on the cake. But it allows us to be part of that exciting new landscape.”
Number of sixth-form colleges in England
Colleges’ average annual VAT bill
Colleges’ estimated collective debts