6th May 2016 at 00:00
Religious conversion

Taxing questions

Life was so simple back in the summer of 2015. All ministers had to do was drop the “learning tax” – as the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association catchily dubbed VAT – and principals would instantly have a few hundred grand to play with/use to offer a rich and varied curriculum that school sixth forms could only dream of/put towards mending the holes in the roof/ride off into the sunset with (delete as appropriate).

Indeed, the campaign was so laudable and straightforward that it even attracted the support of celebs such as Colin “Mr Darcy” Firth and Dermot “Dropped From The X Factor But Oh Look He’s Coming Back Now Ratings Have Fallen” O’Leary.

And campaigners were able to celebrate when chancellor George Osborne revealed in his autumn statement that colleges would finally be permitted to convert to academy status, allowing them to join hands with the wider schools family (and coincidentally save more than £300,000 each year on VAT). Hurrah.

But, of course, it transpired that the move wouldn’t necessarily be that simple. Rather than ministers just giving colleges free money, it turned out that there would be a whole heap of complications, onerous requirements and intricate details to work through. I know, right?

Some colleges could end up forking out far more in VAT that they would save, as TES revealed last week (bit.ly/SixthVAT). And that’s without mentioning complications around higher education students, international recruitment, renegotiating debt repayments and joining a multi-academy trust (MAT)…

Tithed up in red tape

But it turns out that life could be even more awkward for one group in particular: Catholic sixth-form colleges. Well, to be precise, the 14 Roman Catholic colleges and the other eight colleges that rely on trusts. The relationships with these trusts vary (some are Church dioceses, others are charitable trusts up to 400 years old). Some own the land on which colleges are located; some are represented on college governing boards; others give significant grants to their partner colleges.

The difficulty is that when a college becomes an academy, it has to dissolve its college corporation and transfer its property, rights and liabilities to a new or existing academy trust. So in many cases this would require the agreement of an existing trust, which could understandably have some reservations about handing over its interest or ownership.

And, particularly in the case of Catholic colleges, diocesan officials could well have concerns about any move that might weaken their influence over the traditions and values of an educational institution.

On a wing and a prayer

Experts believe this complication hadn’t occurred to Mr Osborne when he made the academy conversion announcement. But there’s an interesting precedent in the schools sector.

Agreements drawn up between the government and Catholic and Church of England leaders reveal that the Churches will have the final say on whether schools within their control become academies. And conversion will only be allowed if the religious character of the school is maintained. In most cases, schools are expected to end up in a Church-led MAT.

While a college making the transition is in a distinctly different situation to a maintained school, Church and trust officials may demand similar safeguards. But as things stand, colleges have more questions than answers.

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