The top public school due to adopt the Government's controversial new diploma qualification this September has been forced to postpone it because of funding problems.
The Pounds 27,000-a-year Wellington College in Berkshire would have been the first major independent to offer a diploma when the course in engineering started at the beginning of next autumn term.
But Anthony Seldon, the head of the 150-year-old college, admitted that its pleas to leading engineering companies for Pounds 80,000 in funding had fallen on deaf ears.
Mr Seldon, who is also the official biographer of Tony Blair, said: "We needed Pounds 80,000 to kit it up. We were prepared to put some money in, but we couldn't put up Pounds 80,000."
The cost of sponsoring a student over the two-year diploma would cost a firm up to Pounds 20,000 and Mr Seldon said the college had already lined up eight pupils to begin the course. Half were from Wellington with the remainder from the state sector, recruited from advertisements in the local press and through joint-working with the local education authority.
Mr Seldon said the school had already appointed a teacher from the British Army to teach the pupils, who will begin the course when they are 16. "She's a real high-flying engineer," he said. "She's got a lot of talents so we have redeployed her elsewhere in the school."
The college had written to 10 leading companies, including Rolls-Royce, asking them for funding and whether they would be interested in sponsoring the pupils, who are being groomed to study engineering at leading universities, including Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College London. But Mr Seldon said: "We were either told that they (the private companies approached) had already spent their money or it was not the right time to be asking because of the economy.
"It's an incredible shame and I'm disappointed. A lot of time and effort has gone into this and I was keen to start. The independent sector has to be innovative with things like this."
Mr Seldon said he and his colleagues were drawing up plans to help the state pupils' parents to cover the financial costs of enrolling at Wellington, where day fees are Pounds 6,725 a term.
The college said it is now planning to introduce the diploma in September 2010, and Mr Seldon added that he would ask the same firms again for money.
"But we will also be casting our net wider," Mr Seldon said. "I am determined to do this. We had reason to think firms would support this because the country desperately needs engineers and it will allow them to work with bright pupils."
Diplomas in demand
In addition to introducing the engineering diploma, Mr Seldon said he hopes to introduce academic diplomas at the college in future years.
"They would be in languages and sciences," he added, "but we've made no firm commitments yet."
He said increasing numbers of pupils will want to do diplomas in future years as the initiative gets off the ground and becomes more high-profile.
Last week, Jim Knight, Schools Minister, said he expected 97 per cent of education authorities to be offering the new qualifications by September 2010, and that they would be fully available by 2013.
Including engineering, five diplomas have been available since last September. A further five come on stream this September, with four more due in 2010 - including languages and international communication and humanities and social sciences.