Next week’s Budget speech by chancellor Philip Hammond will mark two years since his predecessor, George Osborne, made an announcement with far-reaching repercussions for post-16 education.
Sixth-form colleges would, Osborne’s 2015 autumn Budget speech revealed, finally be allowed to give up their status as incorporated colleges to return to the schools sector by becoming academies.
The change, the argument went, would allow them to forge closer links with schools while, more pragmatically, enabling them to claim back their VAT costs – dubbed a “learning tax” by the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) and worth some £317,000 to an average-sized college.
It was seen as a major incentive for cash-strapped colleges, and many in the sector predicted a wave of conversions after Mr Osborne’s announcement. The move was welcomed by the SFCA, which later reported that more than two-thirds of its members had expressed an interest in academisation.
On 1 March, Hereford became the first sixth-form college to complete the process (see box, below). But figures obtained by Tes reveal that, to date, far fewer colleges have gone ahead with academy conversion than had been predicted.
Converters 'gradually rising'
According to the Department for Education, 17 colleges have converted so far, with nine more having submitted a formal application. If these colleges all complete the process, this would equate to just over a quarter of England’s 93 sixth-form colleges. But SFCA chief executive Bill Watkin says the number of converters is “gradually rising”.
“The process has been rigorous and has required significant time and effort,” he says. “However, there are more colleges waiting in the pipeline and they will benefit from the lessons learned so far. It is important that more colleges are now better placed to make a bigger impact on the wider system, but also that, whether academies or not, all sixth-form colleges continue to be a united and close family of 16-19 specialist experts.”
The Maple Group, which represents high-performing sixth-form colleges including Hills Road, Peter Symonds and Winstanley colleges, has been dubbed the “Russell Group” of the sector. Chair Simon Jarvis is principal of The Sixth Form College Farnborough, which on 1 September converted and formed The Prospect Trust, its own multi-academy trust, which he hopes will extend to include primary and secondary schools. This, Jarvis says, will “provide a structure for partner institutions to work more closely, share best practice and achieve synergies and efficiencies”.
He adds: “The ability to join the larger and growing academy sector provides potentially more opportunities and benefits than would be available if we were to remain as part of a shrinking sixth-form college sector.
“Additionally, at a time of reduced funding for public sector organisations and education, the ability, as an academy, to gain VAT savings is very helpful.”
The college also intends to play a central role in providing training and development for teachers, in partnership with schools.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, says it welcomes colleges’ right to decide whether to convert. “The organisation type is not as important as the sector working together. This has been demonstrated with AoC working with the SFCA, the Association of School and College Leaders and others to fight for fairer funding for 16- to 18-year-olds,” he says.