School-level vocational learning and the highbrow academia of Cambridge University might appear to represent opposite ends of the educational spectrum. But the two are set to become unlikely bedfellows, TES has learnt, with plans being drawn up for a new technical school sponsored by the world- famous institution.
To date, the impact of Lord Baker's university technical college (UTC) revolution has been limited. Just two UTCs have opened, with 16 more approved. While they have been generally welcomed by the world of business, the new breed of 14-19 schools has been greeted with hostility by classroom unions fearful of a return to a two-tier system. The less academically gifted, they warn, could end up being shoehorned down a vocational career path before their 15th birthday.
But the prospect of Cambridge spearheading the scheme represents a major coup for the UTC brand. The university and its neighbouring FE institution, Cambridge Regional College (CRC), are developing plans for a UTC specialising in healthcare, health sciences and laboratory science.
The move marks a significant shift in policy for the university. Despite its pedigree in providing initial teacher training, Cambridge has, until now, resisted Government overtures for it to play a more direct role in the schools sector, including sponsorship of academies. Rebecca Lingwood, director of the university's Institute of Continuing Education, admits the move is "quite unprecedented". "We are well-connected in schools, but this is something a little different," she said.
Rather than offering local teenagers a fast track to degrees at Cambridge, the UTC would be focus on addressing the regional skills shortage in the healthcare sector.
"We have a social responsibility for supporting this kind of development," Dr Lingwood said. "What we are able to do is contribute towards the curriculum design and development."
After initially approaching the university with the idea, CRC principal Anne Constantine said she was "delighted" that it had proved to be a "strong partner". Cambridge University hospital Addenbrooke's and a number of major firms in the sector are also expected to be closely involved.
"The health and laboratory sectors in Cambridge are massive in terms of the local economy and jobs, and they are going to continue to grow," Ms Constantine said. "A lot of these employers are experiencing skills shortages."
A location has not yet been earmarked for the UTC, expected to cater for 600-800 students, but CRC's healthcare learning centre on the Addenbrooke's site could be used for professional practice teaching.
While Ms Constantine is adamant the team working on the UTC application will be sensitive to local concerns - "We don't want to upset the schools," she insisted - the classroom unions have reservations about the impact of the scheme on existing schools in the city.
"It will be a free-for-all," the NUT's Cambridgeshire press secretary, Tom Woodcock, said. "We're looking at a situation where it's just going to be a marketplace, and schools and colleges will be in a grab for students and funding."
Lord Baker is due to visit Cambridge on 3 November to discuss the plans, with a view to a formal bid being submitted next year. The application process is tough to negotiate - almost two-thirds of bids in the latest batch were rejected.
However, with relations between Coalition ministers and vice-chancellors still strained in the aftermath of the tuition fees furore, it is difficult to imagine education secretary Michael Gove spurning the opportunity to have the UTC movement championed by Cambridge University.
UTCs have been designed to educate "the hand and mind under one roof". Catering for 14 to 19-year-olds, they combine traditional academic subjects with high-quality technical qualifications.
Each college has one or two specialist areas, with most focusing on engineering in some form. A university must be closely involved with each project, along with partners from the world of business and often an FE college.
Two UTCs are already open - the JCB Academy in Staffordshire and the Black Country UTC in the West Midlands - and 16 more have already been approved.
Lord Baker, a former Conservative education secretary, envisages that there will eventually be more than 100 across the country.