The announcement made by George Osborne in 2015, allowing sixth-form colleges to become academies and thus eligible to reclaim VAT, was the culmination of a long "Drop the Learning Tax" campaign by the Sixth-Form Colleges' Association. It is no surprise that a significant number of sixth-form colleges are considering this, given the significant financial benefit. This is not to say that the issue of the wholly unjustifiable 20 per cent funding gap between the post-16 sector and other phases of education has been resolved.
Some loss of autonomy
Although there is some loss of autonomy on conversion, with the college being accountable to the regional schools commissioner (RSC) and restrictions on borrowing, I do not believe this is sufficient to deter colleges from entering the academy sector. Intervention by RSC would be in exceptional circumstances, relating to financial viability or quality. It is possible to argue that the much-vaunted autonomy of colleges is limited more by the funding methodology and the performance measure regime than anything else.
The process for a "good" or "outstanding" college to become a single academy trust (SAT) is relatively straightforward and, despite the preferred option from the Department for Education being a multi-academy trust (MAT), our proposal to form a SAT was accepted in the light of local circumstances; most secondary schools in the county are either standalone academies or have that as an aspiration. We shall be developing existing links with three local 11-16 schools which will allow collaboration on a range of issues without the added bureaucracy associated with a MAT.
Governance arrangements of an academy trust include an additional requirement to have a small number of members who oversee the work of the board. In our case these will be existing governors who will act as both members and trustees.
Not too onerous
Although the process has generated additional work relating to dissolving the corporation, transfer of assets to the new trust and liaising with external agencies and contractors, it has not been too onerous and we have been well supported by the academy team within the Department for Education. A frustration has been the preparation by the DfE of necessary documentation which requires adaptation of the current funding agreement used for schools. This is a generic issue which should be resolved by the time the majority of colleges apply but has resulted in a slight delay to our conversion date.
The reasons which led the sector to conclude that academisation was in the best interests of our colleges remain, and our experience of the process has been that it is not burdensome.
Jonathan Godfrey is principal of Hereford Sixth-Form College