AoC sets out its stall in wake of Tomlinson review. Steve Hook and Ngaio Crequer report.
Colleges could be in a position to offer full-time places for pupils from the age of 14 as a result of the Tomlinson education reforms.
The Association of Colleges says the Government should consider legal changes that would allow pupils to leave school two years before they have completed compulsory education.
The AoC says pupils whose programmes of study are mainly vocational would benefit from having a single institution to take responsibility for them, including academic lessons and pastoral support.
Some colleges have already expressed an interest in taking 14 to 16-year-olds full-time.
Until now, it has been assumed that post-Tomlinson colleges would be restricted to working with pupils released from school for vocational courses. So far, that has been the practice in colleges that have already started to take under-16s.
Current law demands that all pupils in compulsory education be registered with a school, but John Brennan, chief executive of the AoC, believes the requirement should be dropped.
Mr Brennan said: "If we are to carry forward the Tomlinson proposals, it will be very hard for some schools but easier for colleges, where pupils are on a largely vocational programme.
"It might make sense to say some young people should be given the chance to switch at 14. We think it's well worth exploring. Some colleges might be interested in this idea, and one or two have spoken to me about it."
Natfhe, the lecturers' union, is cautious about under-16s being in college full-time, but says the idea should be considered.
Dan Taubman, further education official for Natfhe, said: "It is an idea that needs to be considered further. It raises many questions about resources and responsibilities. While it may not be appropriate for a college to take full-time 14-year-olds, colleges could play the lead role in some locations where many students do vocational studies."
Principals in favour of the idea include Chris Morecroft of Worcester college of technology, which already provides full-time places for young people from a pupil referral unit. One year's intake from the unit had a 100 per cent staying-on rate at post-16 - an exemplary record, according to Mr Morecroft.
This week, the Learning and Skills Development Agency said that the Tomlinson reforms should lead to the creation of strong local federations that would link schools, colleges and other organisations.
It said students would need to move freely between schools, colleges, training providers and employers, but this would present challenges for timetabling, curriculum planning, funding and accountability. In this case, there would need to be exchanges of specialist staff.
Chris Hughes, chief executive of the LSDA, said local area partnerships would give young people access to a wider range of options.
"Loose partnerships may not be sufficiently robust to overcome the disincentives to collaboration that exist," he said.
"The creation of more formal federations could transform the way services for young people are developed and delivered with a shared approach to planning between government, local authorities and learning and skills councils. They must be made to work."
Mr Hughes said teachers must be given time to develop new ways of working, become familiar with new subjects and sustain enthusiasm for change.