Colleges are likely to be asked to play a much bigger role in educating and training the under-16s when a task force produces its interim report on 14-19 reform next Tuesday.
The task force, led by Mike Tomlinson, is expected to highlight the growing challenge faced by colleges in providing vocational training for youngsters uninspired by learning in schools.
Already more than 100,000 14 to 16-year-olds are being taught in colleges, with that figure expected to rise to 120,000 during this year. Just three years ago the Government set a target for colleges to cater for 40,000 pupils in this age group.
MPs at a recent education select committee meeting to probe the skills strategy for 14 to 19-year-olds expressed surprise at the scale of the programmes colleges already run for 14 to 16-year-olds.
Many colleges now offer a vocational curriculum for 500 or more young teenagers, as many as a medium-sized comprehensive.
But until five years ago few colleges offered anything other than taster courses for the 14-16 age group, which one principal described as being "little more than an extended open day".
One such college was Bedford college. But in 1998 it began a Way to Work programme, designed to provide vocational options to school refuseniks and disaffected pupils.
Ian Pryce, Bedford's principal, said: "We wanted to work with the under-16s because the students we were getting at 16 had very poor attitudes.
"We thought that if we could begin a relationship with them at 14, even if they were coming to us for just one day a week, by the time they came to us at 16 they would be better motivated.
"That was the starting point for us. It went on from there because schools could not believe the success of the programme."
Its effect on individual pupils was immediate, in terms of attendance, behaviour, and performance - so much so that many colleges throughout the country have introduced similar schemes.
The effects on Bedford's performance have also been dramatic. The college's overall success rates have doubled in that five-year period, from 42 to 85 per cent of all students achieving the qualification they were aiming for.
The Way To Work (W2W) project involves a mixture of college attendance and work-based experience, with pupils spending a maximum of one day a week at school.
Around 75 per cent of the pupils on the W2W project progress to other college courses, modern apprenticeships, or go back to school at 16.
"These were mostly refuseniks who would otherwise have dropped out at 16," Mr Pryce said. "Many of them were very able students but they didn't like school.
A successful graduate of the W2W project is 2001 student Paul Rhodes, a school refusenik who moved on to a national diploma in technical theatre and got a place at Rada in September Others include 2002 student Anthony Summers, who won a silver medal at the British Open Catering Championships, and 2003 student Tom Sanderson, whose course involved four days working at Vauxhall Riverside and one day at college. The employer was so impressed with Tom that he was awarded an apprenticeship.
This year Bedford has 60 students on the W2W programme. Schools propose students but the college has the final say. Schools pay, but costs are supplemented through European funding, which covers the transport costs to employer sites.
The main focus of colleges' involvement in the 14-16 programme has been through the Increased Flexibility Programme, a national, externally-funded project involving partnerships between 282 colleges and more than 2,000 schools.
Bedford college has 240 pupils on their IFP project, who undertake vocational programmes at level one, studying for qualifications in catering, vehicle maintenance, hairdressing and construction.
Other initiatives involve building vocational areas in schools, such as hairdressing salons, and teaching students in their school. These projects are funded by the school and again the college selects the students.
Mr Pryce said: "I would expect the Tomlinson report to require schools to provide more vocational options for 14-year-olds, and for colleges to play a more substantial role in their delivery.
"Increasingly, schools are asking us to put on programmes for them. We have the experts and it is silly to disregard that."
At Bury college in Lancashire, around 300 young teenagers are benefiting from vocational provision. Agreements are in place with 12 schools, the pupil referral unit and the local education authority.
Bury's principal, Helen Gilchrist, said time is spent ensuring that pupils are on programmes that meet their abilities, interests and aspirations.
"The principle is one of best match for learners," she said.
Dr Gilchrist, who is a member of the Tomlinson working group, said: "It is not just about offering programmes for disaffected pupils. We want to offer programmes that are challenging, and educate learners who want to learn in a different way."
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