A battle over who pays for pupils to attend college is at the centre of an effective cap on numbers announced on Monday by Euan Robson, Deputy Education Minister, at a school-college conference in Edinburgh.
Colleges currently pay from their own funds if they want to take in pupils, or look elsewhere for cash, and desperately want to know how they are to absorb increased numbers of under-16s over the long term.
Similarly, local authorities do not want to be left with a hefty bill for buying places at colleges without support from central government. Some such as Glasgow have gone their own way by establishing pre-vocational centres but others see the college route as more productive.
Mr Robson launched an 18-month review into the complex problems of school-college links and pressed schools and local authorities to rein in the number of pupils while it is carried out.
A statutory order has already been laid before the Scottish Parliament to clear up confusion about the ability of FE lecturers to teach under-16s.
Some colleges have refused to accept more under-16s because of the costs and stresses on a system designed primarily for adults.
Mr Robson said that 14 per cent of cash released by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council currently goes towards places for 14-16s. "My colleague and party leader, Jim Wallace (Lifelong Learning Minister), will issue guidance to the funding council in due course to ensure current levels remain steady for now," he said.
At the same time, Mr Robson, a former teacher, stressed that for some pupils "the school's curriculum and ethos at the 14-plus age is probably inappropriate".
Bruce Heil, assistant principal at Edinburgh's Telford College, told Mr Robson that pupil numbers were likely to decline as European Social Fund cash ran out. The Social Fund has been used to fund many initiatives.
"We are only engaging with a limited number of pupils who could benefit from school-college links. It depends on what part of the country you live in and what school you go to. There is an urgency to get the review over and make funding available so that there is equality of opportunity for all young people," Mr Heil said.
Mr Robson said the review would help the Executive shape its partnership agreement plans for 14-16s. Ministers want pupils in and beyond S3 to have access to college facilities to hone vocational skills and improve job prospects.
A consultation paper will be published before the end of the year which Mr Robson revealed will cover quality assurance, teaching qualifications for lecturers, professional standards and options to register lecturers.
The General Teaching Council for Scotland has already made a pitch to register all lecturers as qualified teachers but the FE sector is not entirely convinced.
John O'Keane, a senior education manager in North Lanarkshire, also reminded Mr Robson that school-college links worked both ways and that lecturers could deliver courses in schools where issues of behaviour, supervision and pupil welfare could be addressed more easily.
Mr Robson acknowledged problems with the estimated 5,000 Christmas leavers who, according to a social work representative, are being "dumped" by schools into futile college placements or work experience.
Fresh legislation would be needed to tackle the problems of pupils who did not want to be in school but could not leave, the minister conceded.