Are financial issues stopping colleges from becoming academies?

Sixth-form principals want to join forces with academy trusts, but there are barriers holding them back.

Unlike state and independent schools, further education institutions can’t join an existing academy trust.

At the end of June, 68 per cent of delegates at the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) summer conference voted in favour of exploring the possibility of gaining academy status.

It’s not the first time the question has been put to principals. Members were consulted on the issue in 2012 but the majority said no. Since then, however, cuts, competition and curriculum upheaval have made further education a much less hospitable sector.

But it is a financial issue which seems to be mainly getting in the way.

James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the SFCA, says VAT is one of the reasons why the government has yet to reach a decision on whether sixth-form colleges can join trusts, as it would need to reimburse the VAT costs each year for those that convert.

On average this costs colleges £335,000 a year.

“Instead of focusing on the modest, short-term financial costs of conversion, ministers should consider the long-term educational and economic benefits of allowing sixth-form colleges to join the academy programme,” said Mr Kewin.

“Sixth-form colleges are the most effective and efficient providers of sixth-form education in England, but government bureaucracy is preventing them from extending their reach to improve the quality of education received by young people in local academies.”

One establishment eager to become an academy is The Sixth Form College, Solihull.

The college has made strong links with a local trust, gained support from governors and the backing of the Education Funding Agency.

Paul Ashdown, principal of Solihull, said finances do play a role. The college is economically secure, but funding cuts have made balancing the books the most challenging it’s ever been in his 18 years as a principal.

He said merging with academy trusts will help support the college financially as it will enable it to streamline back-office functions, such as IT services, and to jointly tender for things such as energy and ground maintenance contracts. He believes this will lead to significant savings.

A Department for Education spokesperson said they were committed to reviewing sixth-form college conversion and were working with the SFCA to explore how best to do this.

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