Thousands of students can now study at specialist technical colleges, but critics are warning of a two-tier education system.
The government has announced 13 new University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are due to be opened between 2012 and 2014. Two UTCs are already open, with three more in an advanced stage of their development.
They will offer full-time courses to 14 to 19-year-olds, focusing on specialisms such as engineering and science technologies.
They are being backed by more than 130 employers, including such household names as Rolls-Royce and the Royal Navy.
One UTC will be based at the Silverstone race circuit, in Northamptonshire, following a partnership between the track, alongside Tresham College of Further and Higher Education and The University of Northampton.
Meanwhile, the government has also announced 55 new free schools, including a 16-19 sixth form. The London Academy of Excellence, in Newham, is being set up by Brighton College with other independent schools, including Eton College.
Education Secretary Michael Gove said: “UTCs are a key part of the government’s drive to provide school leavers with the technical knowledge and skills that industry demands.”
Lord Kenneth Baker, the co-founder of Baker Dearing Educational Trust (BDT), which has been working to develop UTCs, said: “UTCs will help our economic growth.
“10,000 young people will attend the eighteen UTCs by 2015 – a great beginning. They will combine outstanding hands-on learning with an excellent academic education – leading to unrivalled career opportunities.”
All are backed by a university, with many aided by a college. Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “UTCs are an interesting new set of institutions for young people as they will equip them with the right knowledge and the relevant skills for the future.
“We’re delighted that so many colleges have the chance to put this into effect with this latest announcement.”
However, unions have criticised UTCs, saying they could create two-tier education system and could narrow education opportunities. Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said “greater commitment to vocational education is particularly important” at a time of record high unemployment levels amongst school and college leavers.
However, she said: “The establishment of UTCs risks diverting funding from existing school and college provision and could narrow the range of educational opportunities available for young people in an area.
“The development of UTCs could result in young people being encouraged to make decisions about their future learning at too early a stage and in a way that could reduce their employment chances later on.
“Many 14 year olds simply will not be ready for such life-changing decisions. Employers need to put their money where their mouths are by contributing properly to funding vocational training opportunities and by providing decent job opportunities for young people when they leave school and college.”
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) said UTCs “may sound great on paper” but could result in students, particularly from working class backgrounds, being “channelled in to vocational subjects” and their wealthier contemporaries are encouraged to pursue academic paths.
She said: “UTCs are likely to offer similar courses and curriculum to further education colleges and we may see ever decreasing funding diverted to new projects with considerable costs to colleges currently providing key vocational skills.”