Around 100,000 pupils in England now spend part of their school week in further education colleges. That number is expected to increase to around 250,000 pupils going into FE or work-based training in the next few years as the Government expands access to vocational education.
The major initiative for 14 to 16-year-olds, the Increased Flexibility Programme, has been hailed a success. It has been found to improve exam results and attitudes to education, and has persuaded more young people to stay on after 16.
Anecdotally the messages are also positive. Partnerships of schools and colleges offering this service point to the increasing choices of subjects now on offer at key stage 4. They talk about previously disaffected pupils who enjoy being in the more adult environment of a college and who are finding subjects that interest them. And increasingly the old academicvocational divide is being broken down as able students add vocational qualifications to their list of GCSEs.
Institutionally, there are also benefits. Surveys of FE colleges have found that they have strengthened their relations with schools, and many see 14 to 16-year-olds on campus as part of their mission to widen participation in education and training. Schools, meanwhile, are seeing more confident and better-motivated pupils, with clearer ideas about their careers.
But taking school-age pupils out of the classroom and into the workshop has also created huge tensions, which must be resolved if the Department for Education and Skills is to meet its target of increasing participation of 17-year-olds from the current 75 per cent to 90 per cent by 2015. FE lecturers, many of whom chose that career path because they wanted to train young adults, now find themselves having to teach young teenagers. But they are paid 10 per cent less than teachers and they lack extra training and support to teach that age group. Meanwhile they are having to take account of a range of new issues, not least health and safety. While schools grow increasingly nervous about safety on school trips, FE is expected to let young people loose in construction and vehicle maintenance workshops.
And as the recent furore over convicted sex offenders working in schools shows, child protection is still a huge political issue. Yet the Government seems content to allow 14-year-olds to be mixing with adult students at college.
But the biggest issue raised by colleges is funding. Recent research by the Learning and Skills Development Agency has questioned the programme's sustainability. The DfES gives the Learning and Skills Council pound;34.4 million a year to fund the scheme.
But colleges say that the money they get from schools, the LSC and other sources only covers just over a third of the cost. It is estimated that FE colleges, already squeezed financially, are subsidising provision for schools by pound;100m a year.
The Increased Flexibility Programme was introduced in 2002, encouraging schools and colleges to collaborate and provide a broader choice of subjects and qualifications. The programme involves around 2,000 schools, 300 colleges and nearly 1,000 pupils. The National Foundation for Educational Research last September found that 90 per cent of pupils on the programme continued into FE or training post-16. Pupils improved their confidence, social skills and employability, and showed a more positive attitude towards school.
But behind the statistics, what do young people themselves think? The Trust for the Study of Adolescence was commissioned by Sussex LSC to research young people's views of the scheme in its first year. It found that pupils liked the friendly and relaxed attitudes of FE tutors, the smaller class sizes, the social opportunities and their increased employability.
Many students found that being interested in and enjoying their new vocational subject led them to be more committed to their personal and educational development. Boys in particular found that having time away from school and working in a more practical way helped them to regulate their own behaviour.
But the survey also highlighted certain weaknesses. Pupils cited frequent changes of tutors, lack of planning in some coursework and lack of support.
Many students also mentioned poor school links and felt that they had been "dumped" by their school. There were also gender issues. Students talked about "boy courses" and "girl courses". They perceived hairdressing courses as being overwhelmingly female, and those in engineering and motor vehicles as almost entirely male.
While many students reported that their experience at college had given them an insight into career routes and encouraged them to continue in education and training, there was some criticism about a lack of careers advice. They saw the careers service as dated and limited compared with the innovative nature of the Increased Flexibility Programme.
The Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training also found that pupils preferred the more adult environment of a college. Comments included "you can have a laugh" and "you can wear normal clothes". "At school you get detention or they shout at you, tell you off like a little kid," said one pupil. "At college, they just speak to you."
But if pupils like the way they are treated by staff in FE, the feeling has not been entirely mutual. In the Increased Flexibility Programme's first year, the lecturers' union Natfhe reported that disruption by 14 to 16-year-olds was driving lecturers to take stress-related sick leave as schools sent colleges their problem pupils.
Last year's survey of colleges by the Learning and Skills Development Agency confirmed this - a third of those surveyed identified schools using their courses as a "dumping ground" as a major concern. It also found that 37 per cent of colleges were very concerned that staff did not feel they have the specialist skills and experience required to teach under-16s.
The FE sector is responding - its sector skills council, Lifelong Learning UK, has produced support modules to help FE staff teaching 14 to 16-year-olds, and the Association of Colleges has published guidelines for its members.
But local snapshot surveys of staff by Natfhe are finding that some colleges are reacting rather then being pro-active - only now putting in extra training and support for staff. Dan Taubman, the union's national education officer for colleges, said: "It's not as though under-16s are unknown in colleges. There have been school and college links for 13 years.
"There are two things that are different these days: one is the numbers and the other is who is coming. If the school-college relationship is good and there's proper guidance, and young people and parents are making a positive choice to come to college ... then it can be very sweet.
"If the kids are being turfed out and dumped in college, clearly there are going to be problems."
The South London Learning Partnership is a collaboration of schools, colleges and work-based learning providers across six London boroughs which has been running for six years. It also pulls in support for learning from local authorities, Connexions and education-business partnerships.
Janice Pigott, the manager, believes the partnership is overcoming the initial perception that schools are merely using colleges to dump disaffected children. "In the beginning there was a certain amount of truth in that, and a certain amount of confusion," she says. "The programmes were put together very quickly and there wasn't the opportunity to develop good systems. But that's not the case now. We have looked at a range of different programmes and different ability levels."
She says colleges and schools have developed a close relationship, to offer vocational courses for able students, as well as those who struggle academically. Teachers and college lecturers are also doing work-shadowing to better understand each other's role.
But demand for these vocational programmes from schools in the South London boroughs far outstrips the capacity of their colleges to provide it. The partnership is trying to overcome this, and is looking at ways in which colleges can deliver their programmes in schools.
But the issue comes back to the bottom line - funding. "It's not easy because it's expensive provision," said Ms Pigott. "Finding the funding to do it is probably one of the biggest problems."
The upside and the downside
Positives * Around 100,000 pupils take part in partnerships involving 2,000 schools and 300 colleges.
* Nearly 90 per cent of young people stayed on in further education or training in first year.
* Schools see improved motivation and exam results.
* 37 per cent of colleges cite as "major concern" lack of staff skills and experience for 14-16s.
* pound;34.4 million a year from Government, plus funding from other sources, only covers just over a third of cost.
* Colleges subsidising provision by estimated pound;100m a year.