Mark Haysom has resisted calls for a public inquiry into delays in paying the education maintenance allowance to FE students. The chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council was responding to Michael Gove, the shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families, who demanded the quango's contract with Liberata, a private contractor that processes applications, be investigated.
Principals have estimated that up to 250,000 students could still be waiting for the grant - which is worth up to Pounds 30 a week and is given to teenagers from low-income families as an incentive not to drop out of education at 16.
"Thousands of pupils have not received the money they're entitled to," said Mr Gove, "and it looks as if many are not having their applications processed correctly."
He likened the situation to the recent administrative problems surrounding the Sats tests in schools. "Ed Balls's Department for Children, Schools and Families appears completely incapable of delivering projects of this size. We urgently need an independent inquiry to establish what has gone wrong and how we can avoid the same situation next year."
The LSC says progress is being made in terms of the number of applicants who have received confirmation of their entitlement. It refuses to estimate how many have gone on to receive the cash.
"More than 550,000 applications have been processed, resulting in just over 283,880 pupils receiving notifications that they are entitled to EMAs," Mr Haysom said. "A further 111,000 applications are being processed. Despite this being a peak time, the number of applications waiting to be processed is now decreasing.
"Liberata is now exceeding its target of processing 60,000 applications per week, and the processing time for new applications arriving is now under four weeks."
Beth Walker, vice-president (FE) at the National Union of Students, said: "The NUS is behind these calls for an inquiry into the EMA shambles. Over the course of its six-year contract, Liberata will be paid Pounds 80 million to administer EMAs.
"The NUS has written to the children, schools and families select committee, requesting that it use its full powers of scrutiny to examine the root causes of these failures, in order to ensure that such a situation never arises again."