MINISTERS will back a pound;600 million package to give 16 to 18-year-old students means-tested grants despite concerns that it may not attract enough students from low-achieving groups.
Evidence from a new study on education maintenance allowance pilots, being scrutinised by ministers, shows that the biggest impact is on students who are already well qualified and likely to succeed.
One in five students in the 55 pilot areas receives an allowance of up to pound;40 a week. But the cash is failing to attract the hoped-for numbers of lower-achievers, black students and some other excluded groups.
The report, by the Learning and Skills Development Agency, is positive about the potential of grants to reach targets, but warns that it will take time.
Colleges and schools in the study report "a significant effect" on retention, the report says. "However, evidence of improved achievement is emerging only slowly."
The introduction of EMAs has also resulted in a big rise in bureaucracy,with colleges having to employ extra staff. Costs of monitoring the schemes average pound;13 a pupil each year. But the report says official action can be taken to cut it.
"Both local education authorities and the Department for Education and Skills could initiate actions to help ease the burden of institutions and smooth the eventual introduction of EMAs," says the report, The Impact of Education Maintenance Allowances.
Ministers were until recently nervous about extending the pound;195m pilots nationally. However, after a change of heart, they have had a clear signal from the Treasury that the extra pound;400m needed will come in the comprehensive spending review next month.
Commenting on the findings of the study, a DFES spokesman said: "The purpose of the pilot is to identify any issues around the bedding down of EMAs.
"The fact is that schools and colleges which already have good attendance monitoring systems have not found the introduction of EMAs unduly burdensome. Schools and colleges piloting the scheme have expressed very strong support for it. A wider evaluation due to be released shortly will confirm their powerful impact on retention."
The LSDA report describes the gains as "a small step change" in boosting enrolments of full-time sixth-form and college students. "There is some evidence that for colleges in or near areas of deprivation, introduction of EMAs may have a significant effect on recruitment and progression."
But there are concerns that the problem of reaching the lower-achieving students among poorer families has still not been cracked. The report echoes concerns expressed this week by Margaret Hodge, lifelong learning minister, that Labour had so far failed to close the social divide.
The report says: "Students in receipt of EMAs apparently have more qualifications on entry to college than others, and at a higher level."
There also appears to have been an adverse effect on recruitment to work-based learning. "There is some evidence that EMAs have not drawn non-learners into further education but merely changed the learning route from employment to training," the report says.
The LSDA gives several recommendations for better planning, impartial advice and more effective implementation of EMAs.