Sixth-form colleges are being asked to consider, alongside other options, the possibility of becoming an academy sponsor, but many have significant and understandable reservations. It’s one thing to become an academy, but another thing altogether to become an academy sponsor.
The government has been working for some time towards a schools-led, self-improving system. It sees outstanding schools and academy sponsors and operators as the experts in the field, best placed to raise standards.
As the focus shifts away from local authorities, their capacity is being diminished, their services cut, and academy sponsors and multi-academy trusts (MATs) are increasingly taking responsibility for improved performance and standards in schools. Academy status and a strong sponsor represent the government’s intervention strategy of choice in the face of schools’ underperformance. Those charged with transforming standards in failing schools are academy sponsors.
The self-improving system is happening, but it is happening largely without sixth-form colleges (SFCs). This is surprising because colleges bring exactly the attributes that are needed: outstanding performance; experience of success in the business of education; and excellent outreach support relationships.
In the early days of the academies programme, sponsors tended to be individual philanthropists: entrepreneurs who had no experience of education delivery or school improvement, but who were convinced that they could make a difference by investing resources, energy and professionalism – and bringing to bear their high expectations and aspirations.
More recently, the ranks of academy sponsors have been dominated by outstanding schools, specialist foundations and social enterprises with specialist capacity and expertise. Is it now time for more SFCs to engage in this work?
Centres of excellence
SFCs, centres of excellence and expertise in 16-19 education, can now become academies, and are increasingly considering the question of whether to do so and whether or not to establish, co-construct or join a MAT. They are also considering sponsor status and how best to contribute to system leadership.
Some 90 per cent of SFCs have been judged by Ofsted to be outstanding. They achieve better results and better value for money, with a higher proportion of disadvantaged young people, than any other sector.
SFCs have expertise in curriculum delivery, pastoral care, enrichment, independent study skills and running a successful business. They are an invaluable asset to the system and are being underused. But not all SFCs are convinced that this is the time to take on the significant responsibilities involved in academy sponsorship.
If an SFC chooses to become an academy, whether as a single-academy trust or MAT, it is expected to have “well-rounded plans to support at least one [other] school”, according to the Department for Education. So colleges are exploring the advantages and disadvantages of becoming an academy sponsor. And the risks are clear (see box, below).
Colleges are acutely aware of the moral imperative to ensure a high-quality education for all young people, who deserve nothing less than the best, wherever they study. But they are concerned about the drain on their resources and shift in their focus. These risks are balanced by the benefits associated with a role as a system leader.
By becoming an academy, an SFC faces the prospect of losing some of its autonomy. The college must dissolve its corporation and establish a new trust. Joining an existing MAT or building a new trust entails concessions, negotiations and compromises. Colleges must share the powers of the board with their partners and they become subject to an additional layer of accountability: the regional schools commissioners.
The advantages and disadvantages of academy conversion have been well-rehearsed, but sponsorship less so. Colleges are now engaged in area reviews and making difficult decisions, but their priority remains their relentless focus on educational standards, outcomes for young people and financial stability.
SFCs have an enormous contribution to make. They can shape and inform excellent 16-19 pedagogy beyond their walls. They can support improvements in all phases of education. They can help local schools to run their business efficiently and to raise standards. Several colleges already do these things very successfully. They do not have to become an academy sponsor to do so. But if they do not, they may be missing an opportunity to engage in the self-improving system and to develop an outstanding family of education providers in their wider community.
Becoming an academy sponsor: the risks and rewards
If you concentrate on outreach work, you may take your eye off the ball in your college and standards may dip.
If you take on additional work, you need additional capacity. But sixth-form colleges (SFCs) have already pared their capacity to the bone because of swingeing cuts to their funding in recent years. They have no surplus to share.
SFCs are specialist experts in 16-19 provision, but they have only limited experience of the 11-16 and 5-11 contexts.
Focusing on a small number of vulnerable schools may jeopardise your relationships with the wider network of feeder schools that colleges depend on for their student intake.
Both parties in an improvement relationship can learn from each other.
A MAT allows you to create a shared central resource that benefits all parties.
You can use a MAT to build capacity, and develop leadership and back-office services.
A larger structure allows for economies of scale – you can co-purchase and co-recruit.
There are cross-trust, cross-phase CPD and leadership opportunities.
Recruitment and retention difficulties can be alleviated.
If entrepreneurs can make a difference by transforming educational standards in a failing school, it is clear that phase-specific expertise is not a prerequisite for success.
Bill Watkin is chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association @billwatkin