College leaders and students have attacked ministers' claims that the education maintenance allowance (EMA) should be abolished because it is largely wasted.
At the Association of Colleges (AoC) conference this week, delegates said ministers were selectively using research which claimed to show that most students did not need the pound;30-a-week payments, while ignoring the experience of colleges and other studies suggesting it was vital for increasing participation.
Chris Morecroft, president of the AoC, said: "One area where the Government has got it seriously wrong is the decision to abolish the EMA. You all know, as do the people actually working in colleges, that EMAs have made a real difference in recruiting and retaining young people in education and training and helping them to be successful.
"AoC has been quite clear with ministers that their ambition to achieve full participation in education and training to the age of 18 by 2015 will not succeed unless young people have the financial security to participate. And that they have made it much more difficult to reduce the number of young people not in education, employment or training."
Mr Morecroft said that although colleges would help to administer the smaller funds available for student support in future, the Government was making a "major error".
Business secretary Vince Cable and FE minister John Hayes claimed that an evaluation by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) for the former Department for Education and Skills showed that 90 per cent of recipients would have stayed on in education without the grant, which costs Government pound;500 million a year.
In fact, the IFS evaluation does not include such a claim, instead saying that the programme achieved its aim of increasing participation and retention and attributing a 6 per cent increase in participation to the EMA.
The source of the 90 per cent claim is understood to be a report by the National Foundation for Educational Research, but it has been criticised by the National Union of Students for relying on a survey of students who had not yet begun sixth-form studies.
Shane Chowen, NUS vice-president for FE, said their own research suggested 60 per cent of EMA claimants would have to drop out without the weekly payments.
He pointed out that education secretary Michael Gove had pledged to retain the grant before the election, saying: "Ed Balls (then Labour's education secretary) keeps saying that we are committed to scrapping the EMA. I have never said this. We won't."
Questioned on the conference stage, Mr Cable said critics "would be justifiably unhappy if we simply walked away" but that a pound;150 million fund administered by schools and colleges would help the poorest students.
Asked if he could guarantee that students would not drop out as a result of the withdrawal of EMA, he said: "We can't make a guarantee for every single instance."
Mr Hayes said they could not "guarantee Nirvana" but added they could still help the most disadvantaged teenagers. He said the EMA was not sufficiently targeted at the students who needed it most, and that in his discussions with colleges they were happy to take on the responsibility of deciding which students receive financial support in the future.