Secondary pupils entering third year next August will become the first to take part in a national scheme of vocational education.
The go-ahead was confirmed on Wednesday by Jim Wallace, Lifelong Learning Minister, as he launched a three-month consultation on school-college collaboration. The new strategy would be implemented from the 2005-06 academic year and would allow 14-16s to take college courses in vocational and highly specialised subjects while still at school.
The initiative builds on a growing series of local links between schools and colleges and was hailed by the Association of Scottish Colleges as "an excellent example of a bottom-up approach".
There are already more than 65,000 pupil enrolments in colleges.
Involvement varies considerably, however. A few colleges have up to a fifth of their student activity represented by school pupils and around a third have between 6 per cent and 15 per cent.
Mr Wallace, paying a visit to Edinburgh's Telford College on Wednesday, commented: "It is essential that young people have the opportunity to develop their skills in environments which suit them and the option of going to college is crucial to this."
Colleges will focus on the word "option" and will want assurances that pupils will not have an entitlement. The consultation paper itself notes:
"Giving school pupils immediate and automatic access to a college course of their choice would be a significant departure from practice in the further education sector."
The ASC acknowledges the danger that FE could be used as a "dumping ground" for pupils schools want rid of, and some colleges have already refused to take third-year pupils whom they have accused of disruption and refusal to accept college rules.
Tom Kelly, the ASC's chief executive, underlined the importance of only enrolling pupils who are "classroom or workshop ready". The college ethos, which treats students as adult volunteers, is very different from that of schools, Mr Kelly said.
Schools should therefore continue to be regarded as in loco parentis for students who had not reached leaving age, he added.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities urges the college option to be seen positively, "not as a way of removing disaffected pupils from schools but as a way to improve a young person's transition between school and further education or employment".
Mr Wallace accepted that "there are still many issues to be considered which will allow us to roll this initiative out nationally".
One of the key issues that will exercise colleges is the extent to which they will be funded. The consultation paper, described by the Scottish Executive as "necessarily discursive (with no) firm proposals", spells out a number of options including switching responsibility for funding college places for pupils from the FE funding council to local authorities.
The review will also consider the sensitivities surrounding how pupils should be taught, which may include FE lecturers working in schools, particularly in rural areas where it is not practicable for pupils to attend college. The paper says the Executive does not intend to be "overly prescriptive" so long as pupils are well taught.
The General Teaching Council for Scotland remains "completely opposed to the idea of children under 16 being taught by unregistered lecturers or teachers". That would dilute standards and harm the trust between colleges and schools, it believes.
At present, just over 1,000 FE lecturers are listed with the GTC, 7 per cent of college academics.