Speaking to the Council of Local Education Authorities' conference in Brighton, the Education and Employment Secretary said there was a case for having more work-based education for some young people if it could avoid demotivation and "do something useful for employers at the same time".
But the TUC claimed the idea was "half-baked", while the chair of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, Graham Lane, demanded: "Is this a precursor to lowering the school-leaving age?
"This whole idea seems to be about destroying comprehensive education which will lead to a society where there is a whole group of people who are underskilled."
Later, Mrs Shephard stressed that changes would be for teenagers "itching" to get out into the world of work. "You would be surprised how many children see the point of turning up on time when they understand what is required of them by adults and it is not some irritant imposed on them by schools.'' She told delegates of her determination to reinforce continuity from 14 to 19, proposing to bring responsibility for the post-14 curriculum within the post- 16 bloc. "Such a striking step would acknowledge that though compulsory education and the national curriculum run only to age 16 that is in no sense an end point. "