Those from the poorest homes are the hardest hit, as families are forced to prioritise their spending in tough economic times, according to Maggie Galliers, the new president of the Association of Colleges (AoC).
She said it was difficult to predict the impact cuts to financial support such as the education maintenance allowance (EMA) would have in the future, but admitted funding would have to stretch further.
Ms Galliers, principal of Leicester College, said there was a range of pressures on participation in further education – “the loss of the EMA, but also the Connexions service (which provided information and careers advice) going and transport costs, all of which get in the way of participation, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.
She added: “From our own research, it seems to be at entry level 1 (students who do not have GCSEs at grade C or above) that we’re seeing the big difference.”
The EMA, which was funding given to the poorest students to help them stay in education, was axed by the Government last year. It was replaced by a new system which allows schools and colleges to decide who should be given extra financial support.
When the EMA was scrapped, some students already eligible for the funding were allowed to continue taking it, but this is being phased out. Ms Galliers said this funding “will have to stretch further”.
“That’s one of the reasons why the AoC is running its no free lunches campaign, to highlight the fact that there are 103,000 students in colleges who are missing out on free lunches.”
Owing to a funding anomaly, 16- to 18-year-olds who would be offered free school meals if they were at a school sixth form or academy are ineligible.