Sixth-form colleges are aiming to use their new legal status as a springboard to double numbers and reverse the trend of mergers and closures in recent years.
As institutions decide whether to formally designate themselves as sixth- form colleges next week, the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum set out its plans to expand under its new status as a sector in its own right.
David Igoe, the forum's first chief executive and former principal of Cadbury Sixth Form College in Birmingham, said: "Sixth-form colleges, by the admission of (16-19 minister) Iain Wright, are world-class organisations and we are hoping that local authorities will welcome the fact that they have such successful and effective organisations contributing to their targets.
"We will be disappointed if we can't double the number of sixth-form colleges over a reasonable period of time. It's not too ambitious to say that every young person should have the option to attend a sixth form within a reasonable distance of home."
The numbers of sixth-form colleges has fallen from about 120 at incorporation to 93, although the number of students has risen to nearly 140,000, meaning individual institutions have on average doubled in size. Mr Igoe said the new legal status was not just a symbolic move, but it would help to protect sixth forms from mergers that eroded their identity.
"It gives them a degree of protection from merger," he said. "Our understanding is that giving them a separate legal status makes it more complicated for a takeover and there are more chances to block it."
Part six of this year's Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act gave sixth-form colleges a new statutory designation. Any colleges will be able to apply initially, with the education secretary making the final decision.
After next week's deadline, colleges will only be able to be designated as sixth-form colleges if 80 per cent of their work is with 16- to 19-year- olds, and they can switch designation back after two years.
Sixth-form college status will give local authorities greater influence, making them responsible for managing colleges' performance and removing them from the auspices of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA).
The act also prevents local authorities setting up any rival 16-19 schools in competition with colleges.
Two new sixth forms are also due to add to the ranks for the first time in six years. From next September Rochdale Sixth Form College will cater for more than 800 students who currently travel outside the town for their education, while there are also plans for a new sixth-form college in Lowestoft.
Mr Igoe acknowledged that not all colleges will necessarily divide along predictable lines, with all of those currently labelled sixth forms fitting neatly into the new designation.
Tertiary colleges have been considering designating themselves as sixth forms. Others, such as South East Essex Sixth Form College, or SEEVIC, have such a broad range of provision that they could be considered a general FE college.