Garry Lee takes a closer look at the government’s decision to cut Education Maintenance Allowance
At first the Chancellor George Osborne could be forgiven for wanting to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). Attending Oxford University and being one of the sons of Sir Peter Osborne, who founded a fabric and wallpaper-designing firm doesn’t really give you the necessary tools for an appreciation of such a government expense. Indeed, the idea of saving £500 million that students from poorer backgrounds are given and allowed to ‘squander’ on treats for themselves, rather than on books, travel and educational supplies seems on paper like a well-placed cut; one which avoids having to cut further into public bodies like the NHS, an organisation which benefits everyone.
Now, let us revisit the first two words of this article, ‘at first’. Well, as Andy Burnham MP argued in a not widely distributed video interview conducted by a student at Lambeth College in December 2010, while there is the ability of the government to immediately save “about half a billion pounds” it is probable that many of these young people “if they don’t stay in education may go onto the benefits system because they may be out of work”. According to The Times Online ‘Unemployment benefits explained’ article, Jobseekers Allowance is currently at £47.95 for anyone aged 16 to 24. While I said that George Osborne could be forgiven for not having an appreciation for the EMA compared with someone that was entitled to it and dependent on it, the idea that the government could be paying out an extra £17.95 a week for a 16 or 17 year old to be at home and unemployed when they could have been in school gaining valuable transferable skills that would increase their job prospects and their future quality of life. This makes me angry.
The Institute For Fiscal Studies (IFS) confirmed in December 2010 that the EMA is good value for money, and research has shown that there has been “an increase in the proportion of eligible 16-year olds staying in education from 65% to 69%, and increased the proportion of eligible 17-year olds in education from 54% to 61%”. They continued, “a subsequent report by IFS researchers found that in areas where EMA was available, students as a whole were around 2 percentage points more likely to reach the thresholds for Levels 2 and 3 of the National Qualifications Framework; they also had A Level grades around 4 points higher (on the UCAS tariff) on average”. This is encouraging as the Education Maintenance Allowance was intended as a means to reduce the amount of adults that did not possess basic literary and numeracy skills. In the Post-16 Education debate in 2001, Estelle Morris, then Secretary of State for Education and Skills, commented on the early success of the EMA as a pilot scheme in encouraging people over the age of 16 from poorer backgrounds to stay in higher education. From the 2001 pilot to the 2010 report by the IFS, it is clear that the allowance has been successful, so the opposition to it from my point of view is puzzling.
Like Bridget Phillipson MP, I was a recipient of the EMA award. What I feel has not been communicated well enough is that the award depends on a standard of academic achievement and on impeccable attendance in classes, or you would not receive the award. While the spending of the money received was not guided and conditional, receiving that money was. Frankly, the students that received the award deserved it because they had to earn it. 6 hours of school lessons per day, 5 days per week works out to 30 lessons for £30. According to Directgov, the national minimum wage for 16 to 17 year olds is £3.64, so it would take 16-17 year olds 9 hours work in their workplace of choice (or without the skills earned at school, their workplace of necessity) to earn the amount paid out each week from the government. What I’m getting at here is that the amount paid out as the EMA is very small considering the effect it has had on the amount of eligible people staying on at school and allows them to gain real skills in the process. Due to this, I have no doubt that such an incentive to keep 16 and 17 year olds at school is worthwhile, especially when the government is continually talking about increasing social mobility.
With a governmental majority of 59, and previous reports from Conservative MP Simon Reevell saying to a local paper that he may abstain from the vote at least shows signs that the issue isn’t completely partisan, and that the decision could be still potentially be overturned. From someone that received an Education Maintenance Allowance and had his quality of life and job prospects increased immeasurably as a result of it, I do hope that the government will reconsider.