As the debate raged over tuition fees rising to £9000 at the end of last year, the government’s decision to axe the Education Maintenance Allowance was overshadowed by the furore over university funding. This week however the issue took centre stage as Labour ministers failed to vote through an amendment attempting to save the EMA from the brutal round of education cuts meted out by the new coalition government.
The bulk of the argument centred on the way in which the EMA was targeted, and whether or not it was responsibly spent by students. Education Secretary Michael Gove criticised the grant for being “poorly targeted”, agreeing with Chancellor George Osborne’s assessment that the scheme had high “dead weight costs”. They argue that many teenagers receiving the grant spent it on nights out, clothes and leisure activities rather than using it towards their education expenses; the coalition claim that a high percentage of students spending their allowance in this way would be able to attend college regardless of receiving the EMA or not.
But Labour education spokesperson Andy Burnham claimed that the decision would throw social mobility “into reverse”, tragically “kicking away the ladder of opportunity” and cutting short the aspirations of pupils from the poorest families who would be forced out of full-time education after completing GCSE exams at 16. It was even pointed out that a large number of these students could end up on the dole, costing the government roughly £50 in hand-outs, more than it would cost to continue helping them to attend school. The government also came under fire once again for abandoning their pre-election pledges, with both Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates having campaigned on a platform of having “no plans” to axe the EMA.
Thousands of protesters marched peacefully outside parliament to protest against the axing of the grant as the motion to overturn the decision failed, being outvoted by 59 votes. Many students were eager for their views to be heard, telling reporters that without the EMA they would never have been able to attend college and that the grant was absolutely vital to continuing education for a vast number of families in disadvantaged areas. Conservative politicians in particular were accused of having little understanding of the financial reality of life for low-income families. A study of 700 EMA recipients conducted by the University and College Union supported this view, finding that 70% of poor teenagers would drop out of college if the grant were withdrawn.
But the coalition ministers pointed to their own statistics, claiming that an enormous 90% of those receiving the allowance would have attended college regardless of whether the funding was available or not. The opposition have been supported by those with the closest view of the actual situation however, with an overwhelming 94% of surveyed members of the Association of Colleges predicting that the withdrawal of the EMA would prevent poorer students attending sixth form.
Both sets of data cannot be correct, but who is right, and to what extent the cutting of the grant will devastate poorer pupils’ prospects of reaching higher education remains to be seen. One thing is for certain: it is absolutely paramount that the new ‘targeted’ assistance the government provides in place of the withdrawn allowance must be precisely and astutely administered if it is to successfully reach all those genuinely in need.
Whilst government claims that the grant was poorly targeted seem supported by reports of many students finding a loophole allowing them to receive the grant because of parental divorce, it is also difficult to believe that a mere 10% of recipients were in true need of financial support, as the government claims.
Furthermore, campaigners and education specialists have pointed out gaping holes in the government’s assessment of the situation, which has failed to take into account the fact that deep cuts to Local Education Authority and individual college funding will also simultaneously impact on the poorest pupils, probably greatly increasing the number of pupils who will be in need of assistance if they are to continue to A level. In addition the coalition have failed to take into account specific cases such as many farming and agricultural colleges whose student bodies depend almost entirely on the grant to manage to attend.
Having offered the bait of a year’s free funding for free school meals pupils to sweeten the tuition fees pill only to promptly withdraw the idea once the vote had been passed, it is difficult to believe that the government will follow through satisfactorily with a replacement scheme that they claim will mean all those who wish to attend college are financially able to. One has only to look at the figures to realise that this is a realistic impossibility, as the £560 million EMA fund is due to be replaced with a “hoped for” increase of £52 million to the already existing £26 million Learning Support Fund. Ill-targeted and wasteful the EMA may have been, but these figures, seemingly based on the argument that £500 million of EMA funding was needlessly administered to financially stable pupils, are laughably paltry by comparison.