School pupils as young as 14 could be enrolled on to the first stage of degree programmes if a radical scheme under discussion in Yorkshire gets the go-ahead.
Talks are beginning between further and higher education to develop "the ultimate flexible programme" that could begin at pre-entry level and continue without disruption through to undergraduate degree.
"We could take a 14-year-old from the inner city, for example, and enrol them on to a degree course," said Chris Pratt, principal of Airedale and Wharfedale College, who stressed that the plan was still at the conceptual stage.
The aim is to improve disjointed 14 to 18 provision, in partnership with nearby Leeds Metropolitan University, by offering children one continuous modular programme. Modules could be built up at school and/or college. Progression to university-level study would then be guaranteed for those students who had successfully completed required modules.
Before launching the scheme a pilot study would need to be undertaken, according to Mr Pratt, focusing on a shortage area, such as science or engineering. But the potential problems have not been overlooked. "I would like to see this implemented as soon as possible because if we are serious about progression for young people we need to build clear pathways," he added. "However, the implications of intervening in a university admissions system which works on A level points could be major and there are financial considerations as well. We have a number of practical hurdles to overcome but the barriers to the expansion of higher education have got to be removed."
At De Montfort University another scheme involving schools and colleges preparing students for degree-level study is on the drawing board. This time the target students would be the most gifted, who could be recruited on to a fast track degree in the sixth form.
According to pro vice chancellor Michael Brown, school teachers are enthusiastic for the scheme. It would aim to stimulate the top 3-4 per cent of sixth-formers by offering them an accelerated programme alongside their A levels, which would form the first-year modules of a degree.
"The idea is to build bridges between school, further and higher education," said Professor Brown, who is hoping to pilot the idea in September with ten to 20 pupils in one science and one humanities subject. Candidates would be carefully selected and the successful ones would apply to De Montfort through normal channels for a combined bachelor and masters degree to be completed in three years. The motive, according to Professor Brown, was not to fill up degree courses but "to do something special for a selected group of students".
De Montfort vice chancellor Kenneth Barker stressed that it was not his intention to foreshorten the undergraduate degree, but to take students as far as they could go during their three years at university. "It is clear that the most able sixthformers are not entirely stretched by A level and GNVQ syllabuses," he said. "The university aims to capture the imagination of young people with such ability in advance of their formal entry to university."