When education secretary Michael Gove announced the new bursary system, he said it should be able to provide pound;800 for every student eligible for free school meals. Since then, students, colleges and schools have wondered why many of them cannot match this offer. Now an analysis by TES suggests an answer: a flawed distribution of cash that risks leaving tens of thousands of poor students with less support than they need.
The bursaries for 16-19 students have opened up a sharp inequality in the financial help available to poor students. In 32 local authority areas, too little money has been provided to offer pound;800: instead, on average they have just pound;579. But in the remaining local authorities, the majority, there is an average of pound;1,168 for each free school meals student.
About 23,000 of the poorest students who started sixth-form studies this year live in boroughs where too little cash has been allocated: more than one in four of those entitled to free school meals. Many of those worst affected are in London: in Southwark, there is just pound;243 per free school meals student, and in Lambeth pound;430. But those hardest hit include students in England's largest local authority, Birmingham, where nearly 5 per cent of free school meal students live, and deprived areas such as Knowsley in Merseyside.
Forced to implement a rapid allocation of the new funds after the education maintenance allowance (EMA) was abolished earlier this year, the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA) opted for a simple solution of offering pound;190 to every school and college for each student who previously claimed the full EMA, whose families have an income of below pound;20,818.
Most colleges have followed Mr Gove's lead and are paying the bursaries to students eligible for free school meals, whose families are on benefits or earn less than pound;16,190 a year. The YPLA has calculated that only about one in four students claiming the full EMA falls into this lower-income category - true on a national scale but not for these 32 local authority areas.
When TES compared the bursary allocations in each local authority to the numbers of free school meal students - and also accounted for more than 12,000 young people entitled to a guaranteed pound;1,200 because they are in care or receive income support - some areas are left considerably shortchanged.
One is Tower Hamlets in east London. In a borough where more than 57 per cent of secondary students qualify for free school meals, the local authority has opened up its records so Michael Farley, principal of Tower Hamlets College, knows exactly which students are identified as the most in need. He has about 50 students entitled to pound;1,200 and about 500 who were on free school meals. To give them the support Mr Gove outlined would cost pound;460,000, far more than the pound;248,000 he has received.
"We know that at least two-thirds of the students entering the college are eligible for free school meals. We haven't told students how much they will receive yet, but it won't be half of the pound;800 that was quoted as an expectation," Mr Farley said.
The analysis does not take into account students who travel across borough boundaries. But there is some evidence that the lack of financial support is forcing students to stay put.
Richmond-upon-Thames College takes students from dozens of local authorities and claims to send more students to university than any other campus. Its pound;370,000 allocation was based on about 900 students in each year who claimed the full EMA. Now those numbers have dropped, and the college's discussions with students who decided not to enrol suggest travel costs are to blame.
As a result, the college has expanded its offer of pound;10 a week to all those who would previously have qualified for the full EMA, and expects to have enough funds to offer bonuses - although the level of support is still much less than under the EMA. "What we think has happened is that a number of students who would have come here have chosen to stay at a school or college near their homes," said Chris Hope-Evans, divisional director for student experience.
Trying to overhaul the student financial support system in just a matter of months is one source of the problems, according to the Association of Colleges. "There would have been a riot if they had tried that with vice- chancellors," said assistant chief executive Julian Gravatt.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said the figure of pound;800 for Year 11 students on free school meals was only meant as an illustration, and added that the DfE had consulted on how best to allocate funds. "A majority of respondents to the consultation favoured allocation on the basis of EMA, and this is the methodology used to distribute funds," she said.
pound;190 - The sum received by colleges and schools from bursary funds for every student who previously claimed the full EMA (family income below pound;20,818)
pound;800 - The sum that education secretary Michael Gove said in March the new scheme would give to students eligible for free school meals (family income below pound;16,190)
pound;107m has been allocated for bursaries this year, with pound;67 million going to colleges
32 local authorities, home to one in four students eligible for free school meals, can only provide an average of pound;579 per student.
Original headline: Bungled cash allocation leaves poorest in need