THOUSANDS of students who are eligible for grants to help them stay on in college do not take them up, new research shows.
The take-up of educational maintenance allowances - payments of up to pound;40 a week aimed at 16 to 18-year-olds - varies enormously between education authorities, says the Association of Colleges.
Seven different models for paying the allowance have been piloted in 56 local education authorities.
The grants will be paid nationally from 2004. They aim to encourage young people from poorer households to choose learning over dead-end jobs.
Students who truant, or fail to hand in their homework, lose the allowance.
Pilot evidence suggests that the grants work: where they have been paid, the proportion staying on beyond the age of 16 has improved by 7.3 percentage points.
The AoC analysis shows that in Nottingham and Oldham, 86 per cent of the 21,000 students eligible claimed the cash, compared to a national average of just under 70 per cent. Take-up was over 95 per cent in Tower Hamlets, Stoke-on-Trent, Hackney, Newham and Knowsley. By contrast, take-up was 38.5 per cent in Suffolk, 48.4 per cent in East Lancashire, 52.4 per cent in Worcestershire and 54.2 per cent in Coventry.
Take-up was lowest where parents claimed the allowance instead of the students, or a transport discount was offered instead of cash.
Dr John Brennan, AoC's chief executive designate, warmly welcomed the Government's decision to extend the allowances, but said more must be done to see that all eligible got the cash: "These figures suggest that both national and local government need to do more to make next year's national roll-out a success." He said councils must actively promote the grants.
"The big variations in take-up between councils - even when they are operating the same scheme - suggest that some LEAs are being more proactive than others in encouraging young people to apply.
"If those still at college or school don't know they are eligible for an EMA, those young people outside education are even less likely to know.
Every council must play its part in promoting the allowances."
He added that the Government should consider increasing the grant, as for a small cost this would raise participation and enable more young people to benefit and gain qualifications.
An AoC survey earlier this year found one in three young adults thought they had not got enough information and advice from their school about their options at 16.
Performing arts student, Richard Davies, 18, is one of those who has benefited from EMAs. "It gave me more independence. I didn't have to keep asking my Mum or Dad for money. I could do what I wanted with the money."
Before college he was unsure what he wanted to do but now hopes to go on to do youth or social work.
Annie Doona, curriculum director of educational progression at New College, Nottingham, said EMAs had been a huge success at her college. "We have lots of disadvantaged students and it was a lifeline for them. It helped mainly with travel and books. Many said they could not have stayed at college without this help," she said.