Further education colleges would be free to compete directly with schools for 14 to 16-year-old students as part of Conservative party plans for a major shake-up of education.
Proposals, announced by the Conservatives at their conference in Manchester this week, would allow colleges to recruit full-time students from the age of 14 and to set up their own technical schools catering for 14 to 19-year-olds.
The party also announced a trebling of young apprenticeship places to 30,000 a year at an annual cost of 100 million. All schools would be able to bid for apprenticeship places and commission training directly from employers.
There are two strands to the party's technical schools proposal, according to David Willetts, shadow secretary for universities and skills. The first is to create a dozen free-standing technical schools serving England's largest conurbations. The second is to embed technical schools in colleges, allowing them to recruit students from age 14.
"I would see college-based technical schools as variations on the same policy," Mr Willetts said.
"What we have said is that we will have free-standing 14-19 technical schools. But I am very keen to have alongside that the option for FE colleges themselves to provide the full range of education from age 14."
The free-standing technical schools would be funded from within the 4 billion the Government has set aside for academies.
The Conservatives said that much of this money was earmarked for rebuilding existing schools that would become academies. But the party said that there was no need for the complete rebuilding of all schools seeking academy status.
College-based technical schools should be developed with support from higher education institutions and business, the party said. And all technical schools would offer the new Diplomas, young apprenticeships, BTECs, City amp; Guilds as well as GCSEs and A-levels in core subjects.
"There is a problem with Diplomas where students are being bussed around to comply with all the components when they might be able to do everything in a college," Mr Willetts said.
He said that he would be discussing the proposals with the Association of Colleges (AoC) as a matter of urgency.
Pat Bacon, AoC president and principal of St Helen's College, which runs a 14-16 centre, said: "I welcome the initiative on the basis that it gives FE a clear role in working with the age group. It is all about changing the educational landscape."
Graham Moore, chairman of the 157 Group of leading colleges and principal of Stoke on Trent College, said: "Diplomas are still struggling so maybe, if this technical school agenda puts them in the hands of the college sector, we might get a better result."
Peter Mitchell, education director of vocational education foundation Edge, said: "Edge is absolutely delighted by this proposal. It is a policy we have been championing for the past two years.
"The danger of Diplomas at present is that young people can get an incoherent education going to school, then into college and then back into school. Technical schools must offer a coherence."
A poll of college staff by the AoC, which ran from June to September this year, found that 323 of the 581 respondents agreed that colleges should be able to teach 14 to 16-year-olds full-time, while 221 disagreed and 37 said they did not know.
Technical schools are the brainchild of former education secretary Lord Baker and the late Lord Dearing. The Baker-Dearing Trust has set up the first technical school, which will open in Aston in 2012.
Dame Ruth Silver, a member of the trust and former principal of Lewisham College, said: "I am very taken with the notion of a break in education at 14 and training academic and vocational students together."
What the Tories want
- A technical school in the 12 largest urban areas in England, many involving FE partners.
- To allow FE colleges to take students from age 14.
- Colleges to develop on-site technical schools, with support from universities and businesses, and to offer a wide range of qualifications.
- To fully fund 30,000 young apprenticeship places a year.
- Apprenticeships must include at least 50 days with an employer.