Professor Alison Wolf's influential report on vocational education last year suggested that FE colleges should take on disaffected pupils as young as 14. So far, the policy has had a limited impact, but an innovative scheme to introduce pre-GCSE students to unfamiliar territory - a sixth-form college - is proving surprisingly successful.
The idea by Wilberforce Sixth Form College in Hull to create a "school within a college" came about when it was announced that a struggling local secondary, David Lister School, was to close this September, three years earlier than planned. The most seriously affected students would have been those reaching the end of Year 10 this summer, who would have had to contend with the disruption of finding a new school halfway through their GCSE programmes.
Wilberforce principal Stephan Jungnitz felt the college should step in and told Hull City Council it would be prepared to take on a small group of displaced students. So, in September last year, 48 students aged 14 and 15 nervously arrived at their new "school", not entirely sure what was awaiting them on the other side of the college gates.
"There are always negative connotations when a school closes down," Dr Jungnitz said. "We wanted the students to feel they were coming to something new and exciting. In the first week they were nervous, but they quickly settled into a routine, enjoying lessons and feeling extremely at home."
The students soon came to appreciate the freedoms of college life, he believes. "People come and go and there is plenty of free time. They think it's quite grown up compared with secondary school."
Although the Year 10 cohort take some lessons in the same rooms as the sixth-formers, they are primarily based in their own section of the college, refitted at a cost of pound;100,000, and still have to wear a uniform. Their own common room is perhaps some consolation.
Being in the more adult environment has had a marked impact on the younger students' behaviour, Dr Jungnitz said. "It's amazing how rapidly they have matured. One might have expected them to be running down the corridors, but their behaviour has changed. Some of them have previously had difficulties with behaviour and attendance; the change since they arrived has been quite dramatic.
"The young people are very happy - they say it's exciting being in a college. There are new opportunities for our staff, too. Most of our teachers have secondary teaching experience. All they have to do is remember what they were doing a short while ago. They seem to rather enjoy this kind of engagement, which you don't get with the older students when they become more independent."
Equally, Dr Jungnitz believes, his sixth-form students have not been fazed by the arrival of their younger colleagues. "If anything, the older students want to help and support them," he added.
While FE and sixth-form colleges have legally been able to recruit 14- year-olds since incorporation in 1993, David Igoe, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum, said that, until now, fears over onerous regulations and safeguarding requirements have proved a major deterrent. "There have never before been under-16s who have been members of a college," he said. "We are watching with more than a little interest."
"I was quite nervous," Dr Jungnitz said, "but now I am reassured this is a good idea. It was something we hadn't thought of doing until the (school closure) issue came to light. We got involved to solve a problem, but we have found a model which works well."
Indeed, it has proved to be so successful that, even when the students leave after their GCSEs in 2013, the college is "actively considering" recruiting another batch of pre-GCSE pupils.
However, Dr Jungnitz admits that, for the young students, it may not have been all plain sailing. "They have complained that they are having to work much harder. As a principal, that pleases me."
Inspection report, October 2011:
"(The college) has developed a groundbreaking approach to meeting the needs of Year 10 pupils from a nearby school which is closing, by establishing a broad curriculum with comprehensive tutorial arrangements."
Photo: The GCSE students, pictured here with MPs Karl Turner and Graham Stuart, have `rapidly matured' since joining the sixth-form college, according to its principal.
Original headline: School within a college gets `more than a little interest'