After the move to allow sixth-form colleges to convert to academy status was announced last November, one or two people on the fringes of the sector predicted that this would lead the family of colleges to fragment.
But this group is proving to be strong and united. Members of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA) are not immune to the turbulence that is besetting every phase of education, from early years to universities. But they are addressing common issues with the moral purpose that you would expect of a close-knit collaboration that has so often been described as a family.
While some 16-19 providers are seeing local relationships deteriorate – as collaboration gives way to competition, and as area reviews bring differences into stark relief – sixth-form colleges are working even more closely, sharing stories, solutions and strategies to deal with the latest developments. They are coming together to consider, for example, the academy option, the new curriculum at key stages 4 and 5, assessments and qualifications, the entry-level requirements and course choices for Year 12 students, and the impact of low funding levels.
This is a family of colleges dedicated to high-quality education, irrespective of the technical and legal structure of the institution. The SFCA is, and will continue to be, the home for all dedicated 16-19 providers – whether they are academies or not, whether they belong to a multi-academy trust or not, whether they merge with others or not. It is a hub of best practice in delivering an aspirational and academic 16-19 curriculum, whether A levels or applied general qualifications, supported by a diverse, demanding programme of enrichment and employability experiences.
This is not a family of colleges that is fragmenting under external pressures to maintain standards within each college’s walls. This is a family working more closely together than ever, embracing change as an opportunity. A family that’s ready to take on system leadership roles, collaborating with universities and schools to raise standards for all our young people.
Colleges are united and fiercely proud of their achievements and the difference they make
Colleges are building formal partnerships with primary and secondary schools, FE colleges and universities in exciting ways, but always with a relentless focus on high standards, and a determination to improve social mobility, supporting learners from disadvantaged backgrounds to survive, thrive and succeed at university and beyond.
This is not a family of colleges fragmenting under the pressures that beset some providers. SFCA members have dealt with area reviews with equanimity and good will – indeed, they have often been only tangentially affected by them. They are not, on the whole, facing huge upheaval in the face of apprenticeship initiatives, or mergers, or technical and professional qualifications. This is a united family, fiercely proud of their achievements and the difference they make.
They may represent only 11 per cent of 16-19 provision in terms of student numbers, but more than one in five of all A levels is taken at a sixth-form college. Their results have been achieved at a relatively low cost and with a relatively disadvantaged intake. Their students are used to doing well and making an impact. Just ask the new education secretary Justine Greening, alumna of a sixth-form college in Rotherham.
Shortly before I joined SFCA, I read of one or two concerns about the possible fragmentation of the sixth-form college family. I wondered if this was to be a bleak time for the association and for its members. And I worried about making the move then. Now, after only one term, I know that I need not have worried.
Bill Watkin is chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association @billwatkin