Colleges are flooded with 14- to 16-year-olds on vocational courses that aren't offered in schools. Neil Merrick asks if this is paving the way for the Tomlinson reforms

Every week, 1,000 students aged 16 and under pack into Stoke-on-Trent College for courses ranging from engineering to health and social care. Like most further education colleges, Stoke-on-Trent has been admitting 14- to 16-year-olds since the late Nineties as part of a government drive to make learning more exciting for disaffected teenagers.

But during the past three years, as numbers have grown, the type of student under 16 attending the college for one day each week has changed. About one in five is now of average or higher ability and is expecting to achieve at least five GCSEs at grades A to C. They do not attend college because they are bored, but because they want to study vocational subjects that require more extensive facilities than those on offer at most secondary schools. By targeting 14- to 16-year-olds who are disillusioned with school or seeking courses on top of the normal curriculum, colleges hope to boost staying-on rates and gain a little long-term business for themselves. They are also going a long way towards providing the new 14 to 19 curriculum suggested last month by Mike Tomlinson, which would see GCSEs and A-levels replaced by a diploma with built-in key skills.

Of the 14- to 16-year-olds who attend Stoke-on-Trent, 89 per cent remain in some form of learning beyond 16, with about one-quarter enrolling at the college full time. "They carry on without a break-off point," says Caroline Highland, the director of student and external relations. "The transition at 16 has been removed."

Altaf Hussain, the college's head of progression strategies, says that staff were required to "tweak" their teaching styles slightly to reflect the fact that they are working with younger students. The atmosphere on Tuesdays and Fridays, when most 14- to 16-year-olds attend courses, is also different, with some youngsters making the most of not being in school. But this is seen as a benefit. "Some students are more volatile. We don't have the same structures and rules, but we take advantage of that to harness their enthusiasm," Hussain says. "If they get a positive learning experience here, then hopefully they will stay on at the college."

Under Tomlinson's proposals, which have still to be accepted by the Government, young people would work towards a diploma from the age of 14. The diploma would be made up of core subjects such as maths, communication and ICT, along with subjects students select for themselves, as with GCSEs and A-levels.

In theory, students would reach foundation level (equivalent to GCSE at grades D to G) or intermediate level (GCSE grades A to C) by the time they are 16, before continuing the diploma to advanced level in a FE college or sixth-form. But there would be nothing to stop a student entering a college at 14 or 15, at least part-time. Students would also be under less pressure to reach foundation or intermediate level before 16, as they could continue studying at college.

Judith Norrington, the director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges, says a Tomlinson-style diploma would be about "stage rather than age", with a series of "stopping off" points where youngsters might move between institutions or between education and work. "We might be looking at at least as much mobility, if not more," she says. "We want every student to have access to the widest possible curriculum."

Helen Gilchrist, the principal of Bury College, says schools and colleges must work to make the 14 to 19 curriculum more interesting for students of all abilities. Bury has about 300 pre-16 students on vocational courses and 150 more on special programmes for gifted pupils, including master art-classes and courses in public speaking and critical thinking. A teacher has been seconded to Bury council as a 14 to 19 curriculum development manager.

According to Gilchrist - a member of the Tomlinson group studying 14 to 19 learning - it is essential to cut assessment, including coursework. "We are almost weighing students every year. We are not developing them as much as we should be."

Mike O'Brien, the head of studies at North Devon College, says BTec diplomas should be used as a template for the new 14 to 19 diploma because they are already popular with students. "If we go forward with the Tomlinson reforms, students might spend two days a week with us, two days in school and one day with an employer."

The lecturers' union Natfhe initially had misgivings about its members teaching under-16 students, but these have been overcome after a care and discipline policy was agreed with employers. Dan Taubman, a national Natfhe official, hopes the 14 to 19 diploma becomes part of college life so that lecturers teach younger students of a wide ability range. "We don't just want to be dealing with the disaffected," he says. "Every young person can aspire to some level of the diploma."

The University Vocational Awards Council, which promotes vocational learning in further and higher education, also strongly supports the Tomlinson agenda. The chief executive, Simon Roodhouse, believes that FE colleges are the ideal place to gain a 14 to 19 diploma. "They have terrific support mechanisms for their students."

With the exception of elite universities, which, he says, do not take the slightest interest in vocational routes, Roodhouse expects higher education to welcome the diploma. "Anything that improves progression from level 3 qualifications to level 4 through clearly defined vocational routes has got to be good."

Nadine Cartner, the head of policy at the Association for College Management, says there is still bound to be competition for post-16 students, but young people will find it easier to choose between a college and a school sixth-form. "Vocational routes will be clearer and have higher status and be more flexible in combining elements of the academic," she says.

New College, Durham has about 400 pre-16 students on courses such as hairdressing and vehicle maintenance. "Vocational courses bring out different aptitudes and skills in students that may be lying dormant," says the principal, John Widdowson. He welcomes competition, but hopes that schools, colleges and employers can co-operate over a new tripartite agenda. "It's as much about ethos and the environment where you want to study as the pathway you take," he says. "The challenge is about getting more youngsters to stay on after 16 rather than competing for a fixed market."