WHen Colleges were told that they would be able to recruit 14-year-olds directly, it was hailed as a historic moment. But the sector's response to last year's announcement has been distinctly cautious. Just four out of the 283 eligible colleges recruited younger learners last year. As of last month, only two more had applied to join them come September. But former education minister Lord Baker believes he has the answer.
This week marked the announcement of the first wave of "career colleges", a new breed of self-contained institutions for 14- to 19-year-olds housed within existing colleges, each with a specific industry specialism. In September, Hugh Baird College in Liverpool will open a career college for an initial 60 learners, focusing on catering, construction and tourism. Meanwhile, Oldham College in Manchester will open another institution specialising in the digital and creative industries.
A further seven colleges will be supported with a view to opening 12 months later, including Birmingham Metropolitan College and City of Oxford College. Ruth Gilbert, chief executive of the Career Colleges Trust, expects about 40 such institutions to be open within four years.
The new model requires a close working relationship between the FE sector and the Career Colleges Trust, something that has thus far proved problematic for its creator. Lord Baker, who has already been behind the opening of 17 university technical colleges (UTCs) specialising in vocational education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, has long been an outspoken critic of colleges. "The best teachers go to schools, not colleges," he told TES in March, adding: "That's just the way it is."
Not surprisingly, Ms Gilbert offers a more appreciative assessment of the sector. "I'm really excited to be working with FE colleges," she said. "It wasn't about capitalising on the 14-16 legislation on its own; it's an opportunity to engage young people in these exciting careers that they might not know about.
"The great thing about FE colleges is the broad infrastructure they bring. A good college has careers guidance, support systems, counselling, learning resource centres, technology - we don't have to build from the ground up."
Although career colleges are typically expected to be housed within existing institutions, sharing staff and facilities, they will have separate leaders and governing bodies (made up of at least 40 per cent local employers). They must also have a dedicated "hub" for the younger students.
Local employers will help to design and deliver each college's curriculum. Alongside vocational courses and core GCSEs such as English and maths, students will be given extensive real-world experience in workplaces.
The model is not just limited to FE colleges; about two-thirds of the 65 parties to have expressed an interest so far are colleges, but others include a university, a school and a consortium of small businesses.
Yana Williams, principal of Hugh Baird College, believes it is essential to provide "aspirational" career opportunities. Accordingly, her own college's catering and hospitality institution is being overseen by Michelin-starred chef Nigel Haworth. "It's often not been a sector of choice, more one that young people end up in," she said. "It should be an aspirational option."
The opportunity to share expertise with a growing network of career colleges persuaded Hugh Baird to take the plunge with directly recruiting 14-year-olds, Ms Williams said.
"This will offer a network of support for sharing best practice, growing together rather than working in a silo," she added.
The career college project was also welcomed by Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges. "I like the offer because it can be [established] in the wraparound of the college, which makes it less bureaucratic and more flexible, allowing [colleges] to use resources most effectively," he said.
And the model could finally give colleges the confidence they need to embrace working with younger learners. "There will be a trickle that will become a flow, and I think career colleges will assist in that process," Mr Doel added.