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System leaders

23 August 2016 by Bill Watkin

Academies: System leaders - read more

Sixth form colleges must carefully consider the risks of academisation

The governing bodies of sixth form colleges are considering an exciting new development, but one which is giving rise to complex deliberations and decisions with as yet unknown consequences: whether or not their college should take up the opportunity to become an academy.

Until recently, this was not an option for them. But now, as part of the area review process and as the way in which colleges can be relieved of their VAT burden, the doorway to academy status has been opened. For some time now, sixth form colleges have been schools-facing and less a part of the further education (FE) sector. After all, the curriculum they teach most closely resembles a school sixth form curriculum and their student intake is more aligned to that of a school sixth form than an FE college.

The academy option

Sixth form colleges can now become an academy, but in doing so they will have to surrender some of their autonomy, operate under the watchful eye of a regional schools commissioner and develop, as described by the Department for Education, ‘well-rounded plans to support a failing school’. In return, the Treasury will treat them as schools and relieve them of the requirement to pay VAT on their purchases. For some, this represents a significant benefit and will save them a large amount of money each year. For others, the VAT savings will not have such an impact.

Governors of sixth form colleges, used to running an independent organisation, with great freedoms and great responsibilities, but also used to facing dreadful budget cuts year after year, must now consider whether the academy option comes with enough advantages to make it desirable.

Academy sponsor

It is not just the academy option they must consider. Governing bodies are also considering if becoming an academy sponsor is the way forward for their college. Academy sponsors are charged with turning around failing schools; they bring energy, experience, expertise and expectations to an underperforming school and help to raise standards so that young people have better schooling – but there are not enough of them. Many more are needed in the coming years and regional schools commissioners are turning to sixth form colleges as a rich source of new sponsors.

Sixth form colleges have an outstanding track record of success; they run an efficient business; they have high standards; they have strong relationships and networks; and they are all committed to the moral purpose of education beyond the four walls of their college. They also feel a deep sense of duty to their own students, their own community and their own stakeholders. Can they afford to engage in outreach work in a high-stakes accountability framework?

MATs need work

Recently the Education Select Committee took the unusual step of inviting both Sir Michael Wilshaw (HMCI) and Sir David Carter (National Schools Commissioner) to discuss the place of multi-academy trusts (MATs) in the new educational landscape. Both agreed that MATs represented the best way forward for delivering improvements in school standards. Yet both agreed that many MATs are not yet good enough and there is a need for more of them.

The world of MATs, then, is far from settled and stable. Transforming the standards in another school is a difficult and often drawn-out process, which takes a particular set of skills. But this is what the leaders of MATs – our new system leaders – are charged with doing: transform the standards in our most vulnerable and underperforming schools. However, there are not enough of them, and both Sir Michael and Sir David would like to see more outstanding system leaders who could form MATs with the thousands of schools still waiting to become academies, as well as all those that will need to be re-brokered in the future.

In this context, sixth form colleges are faced with a number of options. Those that are financially secure and have achieved better results have more options available to them, including:

  • Establish a MAT or co-construct a MAT with high-performing local schools or other providers
  • Establish a single-academy trust (SAT)
  • Roll out the successful brand by setting up a new satellite 16−19 free school 
  • Remain a designated sixth form college
  • Join a teaching school alliance.

Those that are in financial difficulty or whose outcomes do not reassure, have fewer options. Both involve a loss of autonomy and identity – to join an existing MAT or merge with a general FE college or another sixth form college.

Three pathways

Sixth form colleges, facing a choice about their future, are broadly considering the advantages and disadvantages of three possible pathways:

  1. Retain the status quo and make no structural change
  2. Become an academy
  3. Become an academy sponsor

Those pursuing the academy option (and over half of colleges have expressed an interest – though this is often a holding position, rather than a firm commitment) must decide whether to convert as a SAT or a MAT.

A SAT is an attractive option: an initial analysis might lead you to think that you save on the VAT bill but you surrender only limited autonomy and you can carry on relatively unchanged. Actually, you must have in place those plans to support another school(s) in your application. This is what the government wants back from colleges, in return for the VAT concession: system leadership.

An MAT is a more complex option. If you set up your own MAT, with a view to bringing in partner schools at some unspecified date in the future, you can set your vision, your own Articles of Association, your own governance structures and your own employee contracts. Partners which join later will be invited to sign up to the already established framework.

If you co-construct a MAT with another successful institution, you will be involved in negotiations and compromises as you establish a jointly-owned framework. However, if you join an existing MAT, you must buy into its already established framework, adopt its vision, seek representation on its board, comply with its Articles and so on.

Risk vs reward

The most common factor in deciding to surrender autonomy is a shared confidence in the quality of personal relationships (the principal and chairs all get on well and trust each other), the promises given that the sixth form college will be protected in terms of its delivery (the MAT will not change the principal, the governing body, the curriculum etc.) and the shared vision and values (the principals all share principles). But, the risks are clear:

  1. What happens when one principal or chair leaves and is replaced by a different personality with whom relations are more strained?
  2. What happens if there is a dip in standards, or a change in personnel, or a change in MAT priorities? Plans and priorities change in time and there is no protection against a future change of heart.
  3. What happens when the MAT chooses to go in one direction and this is not in the best interests of the college? The college has now surrendered its autonomy and has an obligation to consider what is in the best interests of the whole MAT, not just the college – though the college is of course one constituent part of the MAT.

Every sixth form college must consider its options in the light of its own context and circumstances. There is no one right answer. College governors will be looking to balance the enormous contribution that they can make to supporting failing schools and the significant benefits associated with MAT structures, with the incalculable benefits of their decision-making autonomy, and with their capacity to be real system leaders if they surrender that autonomy.

Bill Watkin is Chief Executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association

Academy governance conference

Bill Watkin is chairing ICSA’s Academy Governance Conference on 4 October. For more information or to book your place, visit the website.

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