Independent schools plan to capitalise on the demise of evening classes as colleges are forced to switch focus to work-related courses for young people.

Thousands of evening classes and part-time courses are expected to be axed after Ministers last week announced a shake-up of further education.

The Government wants colleges to focus on vocational teaching with free tuition for 19 to 25-year-olds who do not have a "Level 3" A-level equivalent qualification.

It believes it is vital to keep young people in training to boost skills and keep Britain competitive in the face of rising economic powers such as China and India.

But the Association of Colleges warned that up to a third of 3.4 million adult learning places could be lost as a result of the changes and up to 70 of England's 380 colleges could close.

Independent schools are now looking to seize the opportunity and fill the gap by opening up their premises for leisure-based evening classes.

The move will also help them to fulfil new demands to prove their "public benefit" in order to retain charity status bringing tax breaks worth about £82 million.

Dr Steven King, of the Society of Headmasters and Headmistresses of Independent Schools, said: "We are always looking at new ways to reach out to the community.

"If there is a gap in terms of state provision we will be looking to fill that gap.

"In the independent sector, most of the teachers are teaching the subject they took their degree in and which they specialised in.

"Where schools offer this facilities learners are tapping into the very best in terms of teaching that is out there.

"It is something which a number of schools are doing. It is one of those things that gradually filters through the system and is an area we can increase capacity in."

Birmingham's top feepaying King Edward VI High School for Girls in Edgbaston is already offering evening classes. Headmaster Sarah Evans said: "We recognise that there are a number of older people who would like to carry on having educational opportunities.

"We are very happy to be running courses that aren't geared to some vocational qualification."

Ms Evans said the demo-graphic trend towards an ageing society provided a major market for older learners.

"There are increasing numbers of older people out there who are very healthy and very alert. Lifelong learning isn't all about practical qualifications. It should be about people living more fulfilling lives."

The Government is to cut state subsidies on evening courses from 73 per cent to 50 per cent by 2010. It will mean price rises for subjects such as flower arranging and foreign languages to help to pay for the provision of free education for up to 25-year-olds.

Ministers believe it is more important to focus funds on adults who left school with few qualifications to help to boost Britain's "scandalously low" post-16 staying on rate.

But Ms Evans claimed it was wrong to discriminate against older people. n King Edward VI High School has this year run courses on history of art, canals and water colour painting and is interested in assessing demand for other courses. Call 0121 472 1834 with suggestions.