General FE colleges may be millions of pounds short of meeting the education secretary's pledge to the poorest students because of the way Government calculated its new bursaries.
The pound;180 million bursaries have been based on a fixed formula, with colleges and school sixth-forms receiving pound;190 for every student who last year received the maximum education maintenance allowance (EMA).
The Government expected the formula to provide enough funding from September for each institution to pay pound;800 a year to every student with a family income below pound;16,190, the threshold for free school meals.
Michael Gove told the House of Commons in March: "pound;180 million will be available for that bursary fund, which is enough to ensure that every child eligible for free school meals who chooses to stay on could be paid pound;800 per year - more than many receive under the current EMA arrangements."
But second-year students are covered by separate transitional arrangements - funded by pound;65 million from the general bursary fund as well as extra cash from the Treasury - which have not been factored into the formula.
It means that general FE colleges where a majority of students might be on one-year courses instead of two-year A-level programmes will have to spread their bursary among a much larger number of students than those where A-levels are the norm, where about half will be receiving transitional support.
At Westminster Kingsway College in London, about 80 per cent of students next year will be first-years, as opposed to a college that mainly delivers A-levels, where around half would be first-years. It means that its pound;230,000 allocation is more than a third less than it would have received if the formula accounted for the discrepancy.
Some may be 17-year-olds who studied elsewhere this year, and who are eligible for the transitional funding - but colleges will have to rely on students understanding the system.
College principal Andy Wilson said: "It's not just our allocation: it's the whole sector's allocation. And it is FE colleges who need to support more students from disadvantaged groups."
FE college students are more than twice as likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds: 16 per cent of students compared with 7 per cent in school sixth-forms.
Shane Chowen, FE vice-president at the National Union of Students, said: "Between September and Christmas, when people have paid their course fees and bought their bus passes, the funding for care-leavers entitled to a pound;1,200 payment has been allocated, and we know how much is left. There are going to have to be very serious conversations between the sector and Government."
A DfE spokesman said the "vast majority" of teenagers in their second or third year of study were expected to get support through the national, transitional funding, and that the consultation backed using historic EMA allocations for the new bursaries.
He said: "Schools and colleges aren't expected to provide a bursary of pound;800 to all young people on free school meals - the point of the new arrangements is that they should be far more responsive to need."