Friday, 10 December 2010

More on the protests...

I promised more on EMA yesterday.

While the student protests have mainly centred around the hike in university tuition fees, in reality the removal of EMA will have far more impact on young people from poorer households and while in the main most young people will just bite the bullet and accept the new loans regime, the removal of EMA will disenfranchise a whole generation of young people between the ages of 16-18, whose sights may be set lower than a degree but who will now struggle even to get to Level 3 qualifications.

I remember, as a sixth former, voicing the opinion that there should be some form of financial support for those staying on past 16. EMA finally came along some 30 years later. In my previous existence I worked on its sister scheme, the Adult Learning Grant, which gave a second chance to the thousands of adults who had been failed in one way or another by the education system. It was the most satisfying job I have ever done - a feeling that you were really making a difference to people's lives. Although the two schemes differed in that EMA existed as an incentive to keep young people in education and ALG offered support to those who were willing to take the risk of returning to education as adults (no mean feat in some cases), they both had this in common; they were simple, they were targeted, relatively difficult to abuse and they were both reward-based. So long as you were in full time learning, met the income criteria and (crucially) turned up for every lesson every week, you were retrospectively paid between £10 and £30. 

Certainly, there were some cases where students (or in most cases, their parents) got round the eligibility criteria and obtained the grant, but this is true of all schemes and was, for the most part, rare. Being attendance-based, there was little incentive for potential fraudsters to set up a claim unless they were going to put the hours in.

On Question Time last night, Liam Fox told us that the statistics show that 'most' of these students would stay on in education anyway (and with the extension of the school leaving age, they will have no choice), but I would question this (from the base of having done statistical work on the schemes). True, most would have signed up for courses in September, but where EMA made the difference was in attendance and retention. Sticking the course out without the financial support was a real challenge for kids from poorer backgrounds, especially where there is no culture of continuing education or parental support for it. School sixth forms may well be full of committed students who would remain on course no matter what, but in FE colleges EMA has made a real difference in lowering drop-out rates.

I suspect the coalition's real reason for dropping the scheme is not that it is not 'targeted' enough (means tested and attendance based  - how much more targeted can you get?) but that the schemes are administered through expensive contracts with private sector BPOs rather than at cost via local authorites (the pilots for both EMA and ALG were run, very successfully, by LAs) and are costing a lot of money. Actually, I rather agree with them on this - New Labour were just as guilty of buying in to the myth of outsourcing always resulting in better value for money as previous Tory administrations, but I wish they'd come out and say so rather than pretending that EMA 'doesn't work'.

Potentially, the removal of EMA will have a far more significant impact on the life chances of young people than the tuition fee issue. The FE students protesting in London yesterday will not get their EMA this week, as they will have missed lectures to go to London (and will have incurred expense getting there). Clearly, though, they feel strongly enough about the issue to make that sacrifice - pity no-one's really noticing.

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