Sixth-form colleges should be given the freedom to join academy chains and even to establish their own multi-academy trusts, sector leaders argue.
Their comments follow last week's vote by members of the Sixth Form Colleges' Association (SFCA) to cultivate closer links with the schools sector and explore the possibility of institutions converting to academy or free school status.
Unlike schools, colleges are forced to pay VAT, with the average bill standing at pound;335,000 per year. And while the 5-16 schools budget has been protected since 2010, colleges have had four successive years of funding cuts, leading to complaints that their plight has been ignored by the government.
Delegates at the SFCA summer conference agreed to a plan to "unambiguously" locate themselves within the schools sector, rather than further education. They voted to "forge closer links with schools, academies and free schools" and "explore conversion to become 16-19 academies or 16-19 free schools".
"We've felt increasingly that we're operating on the periphery of the government's vision, even though we could really see ourselves as contributing to its achievement of its goals: narrowing gaps, raising attainment, collaboration," said Pauline Hagen, principal of New College Pontefract in West Yorkshire.
In September 2016, the college is opening a 16-19 free school in Doncaster. It has created an academy trust to oversee the new provision, but because of its status as an incorporated college, it is unable to join the body it has created.
Ms Hagen described the existing governance system for colleges as "clumsy, unnecessarily bureaucratic and counter to [the government's] aims and ambitions", and said she would like her college to convert to academy status (see panel, opposite).
"We aren't afraid of entering into a funding agreement with the secretary of state and coming under [the schools] umbrella again. That's where the powerhouse is, that's where all the exciting, dynamic fluidity is," she said. "We feel we have much more in common with schools, in terms of our systems, our pedagogy and our performance-related bonus scheme [for staff pay], than we do with FE. If you ask me where I stand, it's on the schools side, not on the FE side."
The proposals were also backed by Paul Ashdown, principal of the Sixth Form College, Solihull, in the West Midlands. "Essentially, I think we are schools," he told TES. "Our teachers tend to have the same qualification background as schoolteachers; our provision is also largely what is offered in schools. I started my career in a school. Most of my staff have [worked] in schools as well. I think that is where we actually belong and we're very different from a big FE college."
In 2012, the SFCA looked into en mass academy conversion, but decided against giving up colleges' incorporated status.
In addition, the Department for Education refused to facilitate conversion until outstanding issues were resolved. These included meeting the VAT costs of the 93 colleges - estimated by the SFCA to be pound;30 million per year - as well as writing off their collective debt of about pound;120 million.
But James Kewin, the SFCA's deputy chief executive, said it was time to revisit the issue. "Doing nothing isn't an option," he insisted. "We will look at how we can develop these ideas and present them to the government."
Mr Kewin added that several obstacles would first have to be overcome. Under current rules, any colleges that converted would no longer be able to recruit students from overseas, offer higher education courses or take out loans without approval from the education secretary.
The majority of sixth-form colleges are members of both the SFCA and the Association of Colleges, which also represents general FE colleges. Mark Bramwell, the AoC's associate director of sixth-form colleges, told TES that a number of institutions were keen to remain in the FE sector.
"We would encourage every college to make the best decision for them," he said. "However, we have been told by the DfE that more news on the future status of sixth-form colleges is expected later this year, so we feel that any strategic moves at this stage could prove to be premature."
A DfE spokesperson confirmed that sixth-form colleges were not presently allowed to convert to academy status, but said the situation was under review.
"Good sixth-form colleges can and do become academy sponsors, partnering with underperforming schools to bring about improvement through collaboration and shared expertise," the spokesperson added. "We encourage any strong sixth-form college to apply to become a sponsor, to ensure that every child has the chance to go to a good or outstanding school.
"The value of sixth-form colleges is not in doubt - they are a vital part of the education system, with many of them outperforming other post-16 providers. We are looking at how we can help develop them and will work with the SFCA on this."
`Our freedom is a double-edged sword'
Over the past four years, New College Pontefract has grown from 1,600 to 2,000 students. In September 2016, it will become the first sixth-form college to establish a 16-19 free school when its new campus opens in nearby Doncaster.
The organisation has become a designated teaching school, with principal Pauline Hagen (pictured) earning national leader of education status.
"We're leading strategic partners, helping challenged schools and colleges at every phase," she says. "We're driving this phase-wide school improvement, which is exactly what the government's wanting, yet we can't actually be part of the sector.
"I'm not quite sure what we would lose [by becoming an academy]. Being incorporated brought freedom and autonomy, self-assessment and self-regulation. It brought the right to borrow, but it brought the need to pay VAT. So it's a bit of a double-edged sword, this so-called freedom."