Delays by ministers in announcing new powers for colleges to directly recruit 14-year-olds in September mean that only a handful are likely to take advantage of the freedoms this year. But among the colleges with advanced plans for 14-16 education, some are expecting to recruit between 100 and 150 students in their first year - roughly equivalent to the annual intake of a new secondary school.
Among representatives of about 100 colleges at a 14-16 conference held by the Association of Colleges last week, only about a dozen said that they were ready to recruit in September, although many more intend to follow suit in 2014.
Mike Hopkins, principal of Middlesbrough College and chair of the college working group that designed the proposals for 14-16 recruitment, said it was more important for colleges to get under-16 education right than to offer it early.
"This took longer than we hoped," he said. "We were expecting a ministerial announcement in late September, then it was in November, and in the end it went a few weeks beyond that. In terms of planning, that's quite late. So it will be a slow start in 2013 but I have no problem with that. Now that the government has given us this opportunity, we have to ensure that we deliver it well."
At least 205 colleges that are rated "good" or "outstanding" by Ofsted will be eligible to recruit 14-year-old students from September, while a further 119 that have a "satisfactory" grade or the new "requires improvement" label will also be able to recruit under-16s if they can demonstrate that they have made progress since inspection.
While the initiative has mainly been focused on general FE colleges, because of the potential to introduce a curriculum with a day a week of vocational learning, some sixth-form colleges are also involved. Wilberforce Sixth Form College in Hull, where large numbers of students study for vocational qualifications, was part of a pilot programme in which colleges taught 14- to 16-year-olds whose schools had been closed.
But even if all these colleges recruited at the level of the most ambitious plans today, it would only amount to about 9 per cent of the total cohort of about 550,000 students.
Principals said that capital requirements could prevent them from recruiting in larger numbers: many newly refurbished colleges are having to work in smaller spaces than before and can only accommodate a small increase in student numbers.
They have also sought to reassure schools that the change would not have a disproportionate effect on their intake. Ian Pryce, principal of Bedford College, said that the 100 students he planned to recruit would likely come from a catchment area including 15 schools. "It won't have a huge impact on any individual school," he said.
At Middlesbrough College, Mr Hopkins said that he is eschewing direct recruitment, even though he chaired the group that made it possible. Instead, he intends to recruit in schools under a collaborative agreement, sending liaison officers into cooperative schools and discussing the options for transfer at 14 with suitable students. It means that some schools, which currently block the college from access to their pupils, will also be untouched by the under-16 recruitment.
"It's not competitive; we are not going to advertise," Mr Hopkins said. "We have a reasonable relationship with our schools."
Despite the softly, softly approach, Mr Hopkins said that he still believed 14-16 recruitment by colleges could have an enormous impact on the education system. "I think it can grow bigger in our college and I think over five or 10 years it could be quite transformational," he said. "When the first college started to offer A levels, I don't think anyone knew, years on, that they would be the biggest provider of A levels in the post-16 sector. Nobody could have foreseen that."
If it does have a transformational effect, it will mean big changes for secondary schools. Mr Hopkins joined Lord Baker in speculating about the need for a middle-school revival. If changing educational institution at 14 becomes commonplace, an 11-13 school stage makes little sense, he said.
Lord Baker, in his book 14 to 18: a new vision for secondary education, argues that places such as Ontario, Canada, have seen great improvements in results after adopting 14-18 as a distinct phase of education, with improving results in international league tables and rising graduation and participation rates.
To recruit 14- to 16-year-olds, colleges must:
- be rated outstanding, good or satisfactory with improving results;
- appoint separate leadership for the 14-16 provision;
- set aside a dedicated area within the college for 14-16 education and support; and
- complete a "readiness to open" checklist covering issues from admissions policies to safeguarding.
- Ofsted will inspect the provision within two years.