Former education secretary Lord Baker has revealed that he wants as many university technical colleges (UTCs) to be open as grammar schools within the next five years.
Seventeen UTCs are currently operating across England and a further 40 have been approved for opening, including seven announced last week. But Lord Baker wants to almost triple the total to rival the 163 grammar schools in England.
Last month, Labour pledged to increase the number to at least 100 if the party is elected next year, but Lord Baker, chairman of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which promotes UTCs, told TES that he wanted to see even more.
"I don't think any other educational initiative starting from scratch has grown so much in such a short space of time," he said. "But there must be more. We have a target of as many UTCs as there are grammar schools: 163. We will work really hard to get UTCs to the next level within five years."
The colleges for 14- to 19-year-olds offer academic and technical education, specialising in areas with skills shortages, such as engineering, manufacturing and life sciences.
Although they have cross-party support, Lord Baker said UTCs had not been high on the government's educational agenda, placing some blame at the door of the former education secretary. "That's the shadow of Michael Gove," he said. "He didn't give the idea much support, but others did. George Osborne, the chancellor, has been one of our biggest supporters.
"In the run-up to the general election, I will approach the prime minister and education minister to get a commitment to expand it substantially."
The next round of approvals is due to be announced in January, when a further 12-15 colleges are expected to be rubber-stamped. Lord Baker said students had so far graduated at five UTCs after exams at 16 or 18, and he claimed that "not one has joined the ranks of the unemployed".
"That is remarkable for any school or college," he added. "There's no doubt this is a successful formula."
But despite the rapid growth and apparent success of UTCs, the project has suffered a number of recent setbacks and has come in for criticism from some in the FE sector.
Bedford College was asked to step in and assist Central Bedfordshire UTC at the request of Mr Gove in June, after the UTC was rated inadequate by Ofsted. The following month, London's flagship UTC in Hackney announced that it had been forced to close after receiving fewer than half the applications it was expecting for September.
Lord Baker told TES that both colleges had experienced problems with governance and had not taken advice early enough. Even in those colleges, no student was expected to become Neet (not in education, employment or training), he added.
But some are concerned that UTCs are duplicating provision offered by FE colleges and even diverting valuable resources from them. Others fear that the project is forcing students into vocational pathways too early.
Andrew Harden, head of FE at the University and College Union, said: "At a time when our colleges are facing huge budget cuts, it is essential that funding is not diverted at the expense of institutions already providing key vocational training.
"Students should be able to choose a mixture of academic and vocational options to provide a broad basis for their education. We would not want to see the creation of a system where young people, typically from working-class backgrounds, are channelled into vocational subjects while their wealthier contemporaries are encouraged to pursue academic paths."
Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of colleges, said more credit should be given to the role of FE colleges in the UTC project. "FE colleges have been the backbone of enabling UTCs to be successful, yet that is never mentioned," she said.
Dr Sedgmore added that "serious questions" needed to be asked and that the problems at Hackney and Bedford could not be overlooked. "There's nothing wrong with the core idea, but you have to ask whether they are providing value for money."