But white paper may add to confusion over who will run new 14-16 vocational diplomas,reports Michael Shaw.
Sixth-form colleges will be encouraged to expand and take on thousands of 14 to 16-year-old who would normally attend secondary schools.
The colleges welcomed the Government's proposals this week saying they had often been overlooked in the past.
But the plans, published in this week's further education white paper, may add to confusion about whether schools, sixth-form colleges or other FE institutions will get priority in the competition to recruit teenagers, a turf war likely to intensify as pupil numbers fall.
Most of the 101 sixth-form colleges in England tend to focus on A-level courses, and so have been significantly less likely than other FE organisations to teach younger teenagers.
But the white paper suggests they should expand and teach more under-16s by offering the 14-19 vocational diplomas which will be available from 2008.
"We want a strong and growing sixth-form college sector," the paper states.
"We want it to be easier to establish new sixth-form colleges and easier for existing colleges to expand, especially to deliver specialised diplomas as part of 14-19 reform."
Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, was previously principal of the Wyke sixth-form college in Hull.
He said the proposals would be appreciated by sixth-form colleges which were now often oversubscribed after a "hostile" decade in which their extinction seemed possible.
"There may be some sixth-form colleges which hold out because they do not see it as their job to work with under-16s," Mr Ward said. "But others will want to offer the diplomas - the pattern will depend on what schools and FE colleges in their area are doing."
The white paper proposes awarding sixth-form colleges a new "centre of excellence" status if they can show they have impressive teaching and leadership. This would give them extra funding, though the amount has yet to be specified.
The new award follows complaints from sixth-form colleges that they are not eligible to get the specialist status given to schools.
The colleges have also usually been too small to get the centre of vocational excellence award, which provides FE colleges with bonuses of around half a million pounds.
The paper proposes that a new sixth-form college should be automatically considered as an option wherever there is need for more 16 to 19 education and that tit should be easier for popular ones to expand.
However, the Government is also legislating separately for a "strong presumption" that schools should be able to expand their sixth forms.
Yet Bill Rammell, higher education minister, told The TES he saw no contradiction between these two proposals because demand for vocational courses was expected to soar.
Projections by the Department for Education and Skills suggest the number of 14 to 15-year-olds taking the specialised vocational diplomas will peak at around 350,000 in 2013 - more than two-and-a-half times the number taking non-GCSE vocational courses this year.
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