The future of sixth form colleges
Earlier this year, the Government confirmed plans to allow sixth form colleges to change their status to academies. This opportunity has prompted colleges to consider all their strategic options for the future. A couple of months on, the strategic options for sixth form colleges are at last becoming clearer and many are now beginning to publicly declare their choices. The outcomes from the first wave of area reviews have confirmed that continuing as a standalone sixth form college is viable after all. For example, Portsmouth Sixth Form College will continue to celebrate its independence as a result of being reviewed as 'financially resilient'. Similarly, Joseph Chamberlain has also set out an impressive vision for the future as a sixth form college for Birmingham. The second option, of merging with another college, is seen as a concern by some but an opportunity by others. The Prior Pursglove / Stockton merger reflects a strong sense of shared cultural identity. The announcement of three-way federation proposals by Shrewsbury Sixth Form College, Shrewsbury College and New College Telford took many by surprise. However it also reflects an alternative view on how to retain distinctive but financially viable options. There are a number of well-advanced conversations between sixth form colleges about mergers and federations outside of area reviews. Of course there is no guarantee of successful outcomes and several have fallen over after substantial negotiations. Many sixth form colleges have sensibly retained the option of academy conversion particularly to log this option at the onset of area reviews. Others have definitely made the decision to academise as part of their current area review process. Priestley Sixth Form College, for example, has made impressive progress and has an exciting design framework for a multi-academy trust. The Department for Education guidance on conversion does create problems for some colleges, however. There remain questions on whether an academy can continue to attract international students, as well as the issue of VAT repayments on new buildings since 2011. The Association of Colleges continues to lobby to resolve these obstacles. The guidance talks about 'a robust educational and business case'. However we do not know yet how stringent the financial tests will be for a sixth form college forming a multi-academy trust. It is possible that some colleges will be under pressure to demonstrate that they are financially stable. Naturally, the Government is cool about the thought of writing off any debt. However this might be interpreted by some colleges as going through another unexpected hoop. Some colleges are also awaiting clarification whether the restructuring facility, recently announced by the Minister for Skills Nick Boles, will replace the loans owed by some sixth form colleges when banks might ask for repayment on college dissolution. I also believe that area reviews may have helped to renew interest in partnership work. I fully expect to see several announcements over new college collaborations around self-improvement. These might be eligible for transition grant funding if they are part of area review recommendations. This could be a key model in better value for money, improved quality, closer links with schools and a foundation for further innovation. It would be particularly attractive if a grant could cover the costs of a senior coordinator to set things up. What is beyond doubt, though, is that 2016 will see changes to sixth form colleges across England. Principals and governors face a difficult decision to choose the right path for their college. Only time will tell what the right approach is. Mark Bramwell is the Associate Director of Sixth Form Colleges for the Association of Colleges.