Two university technical colleges will start recruiting students a year before the standard starting age of 14 from September, and another is planning to follow suit in 2019.
The JCB Academy in Staffordshire and UTC Sheffield have both confirmed plans to recruit year 9 students from the start of next academic year.
The London Design and Engineering UTC intends to do the same from the start of 2019/20.
This represents a major new development for the UTC movement, which launched in 2011 with the backing of former Conservative education secretary Lord Baker.
These specialist technical education colleges that have so far only taught 14- to 19-year-olds. However eight have closed so far as a direct result of problems with recruiting at that age.
The colleges switching to earlier recruitment all claim they wants to harmonise with ordinary comprehensive schools, which transition to teaching the GCSE curriculum from year 9.
“It makes sense for UTCs to consider following suit by changing their age range,” said a spokesperson for the Baker Dearing Trust, which represents UTCs.
A spokesperson for the JCB Academy, which is rated ‘good’ by Ofsted and is currently running at full capacity for learners, said it had received 666 applications for 264 available places this year.
It claimed this made it the most oversubscribed school in Staffordshire “by some margin”, though it is still taking on 66 year 9 learners from September.
“The year of transfer from middle to high school is year 9 and therefore learners have, in the past, spent year 8 in the middle school, year 9 at the high school and then transferred to us,” a spokesperson explained.
“The change has therefore been to facilitate these learners joining the JCB Academy at their normal point of transfer. This is the motivation for the change and it has been well received by parents.”
UTC Sheffield has also been given the nod to recruit 200 students at the age of 13 across its two campuses from September.
The ‘good’-rated provider, which is currently teaching just over 700 learners but which has the capacity for 1,200, held a public consultation on whether to change its recruiting age. Sixty-eight per cent of respondents agreed with the plan.
“On the basis of the consultation results and a wide range of other evidence, the DfE has now authorised the trust to proceed,” a spokesperson said.
“As a result, a cohort of year 9 students will be admitted from September 2018 onwards.”
The London Design and Engineering UTC held its consultation into recruiting earlier shortly after it opened in late 2016.
Its principal and chief executive Geoffrey Fowler said the response to the consultation was “overwhelmingly positive” in favour of the move.
But the change had been postponed until 2019 due to “delays” on a building project that will not be completed until December.
The specialist technical provider, which has not yet been rated by Ofsted, had 179 pupils in 2016/17, set against its capacity of 600 learners.
Other UTCs consulting on extending their admissions to include year 9 are Aston University Engineering Academy in Birmingham, Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology and Liverpool Life Science UTC.
FE Week recently revealed that 39 of the 44 UTCs still open in 2016/17 were forced to hand money back to the government because they missed recruitment targets, leaving them with a combined debt of around £11 million.