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Cuts are forcing students to quit school earlier

Fewer pupils opt to stay on past 16 after maintenance allowance and travel bursary vanish

There has been a marked drop in the number of students staying on at college after the age of 16 as a result of Government cuts. Half the 182 colleges surveyed in a major study published today said student numbers had dropped this year. The axeing of education maintenance allowances (EMAs) is cited as the main reason for the slump.

In one in four colleges, the drop in numbers was said to be "significant" – between 5 and 15 per cent.

The research is the first in-depth study of the impact of the Government's decision to cut the scheme. It blames not only the axeing of the allowance of up to £30 a week for the fall but also cuts in transport subsidies and increased competition amongst rivals.

"[Many] colleges are concerned that financial constraints are preventing some students from pursuing their preferred courses," said Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, which carried out the research. He said the cuts were hitting students who performed less well at school the hardest, and said the axeing of the Connexions careers service along with EMAs meant "there will be little colleges can do to encourage them back into education".

Overall, there were 600 fewer students enrolled on courses with a marked drop in further education and specialist colleges among students likely to opt for vocational courses such as sport and leisure, hair and beauty and construction. However, sixth-form colleges – where the majority of students study A-levels – reported an increase in the number of enrolments. This year colleges received £65m in bursary funding for 16-year-olds – about a third of the amount available last year. The survey revealed only 2 per cent of local authorities had increased transport subsidies for 16 to 19-year-olds, while 38 per cent had cut them; 56 per cent of the colleges said they were spending more in helping students out with transport costs this year.

The drop in student numbers was most marked in the East Midlands and North-east (1.4 per cent) followed by Yorkshire and Humberside (0.6 per cent). The biggest increase in numbers was recorded in the West Midlands (0.8 per cent).

Kevin Brennan, Labour's shadow Schools Minister, said: "The great danger is that this is all having an impact on people's aspirations."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, added: "As youth unemployment soars towards record levels, the Government needs to urgently reassess its priorities and make access to education easier for the poorest in society. Better transport subsidies and free meals for the poorest students would [be a] step in the right direction."

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, in announcing the axeing of the EMA, said it would be replaced by more targeted funding at a lower cost.