15 year old schoolboy Joe Cotton received a standing ovation this week and coverage from media outlets across the UK for his heartfelt defence of the EMA at the National Union of Teachers conference. His speech has brought the tragic axing of the EMA sharply back into the public consciousness just as the NASUWT teachers’ union also declared a vote of no confidence in Education Secretary Michael Gove.
The tragedy is that calls for Gove’s resignation and desperate protests against the discontinuation of the Education Maintenance Allowance scheme have had little impact on the government’s implementation of its unpopular education program.
What was the EMA?
The Education Maintenance Allowance was a state funded program that existed to encourage and support teenagers in continuing to sixth form college education after completing their GCSEs. Under the scheme, a £30 weekly allowance was distributed to all college students from lower income families to offset the burden of travel, food and study expenses for the families of young people continuing in education.
What happened to the EMA?
Upon his arrival in government, and under universal pressure to make cuts to the budget deficit, Gove declared that vast sums of money were being wasted by the EMA. He argued that the scheme provided money to many pupils who were not in fact truly in need of financial support; that many wasted it on music and cinema trips; and that statistics showed most children receiving it would continue attending college regardless if the scheme were dropped.
However, these arguments were extremely difficult to prove or quantify, and were stridently opposed by campaigners who claimed that the true necessity of financial support for thousands of students from poorer areas to continue to college was very real indeed. Gove, like many of the Conservative party members of the coalition government, was accused of being out of touch and unaware of the true reality of life for families on the front line of poverty.
Nonetheless, in spite of huge protests and marches including one in which half a million people travelled to Westminster to voice their serious concerns over the impact the abolition of the EMA would have on the prospects of poorer pupils, Gove persisted in swearing that the EMA was wasteful and unnecessary and promised to replace it with targeted, relevant funding instead.
What has replaced the EMA?
Last month the government unveiled the EMA’s replacement: a £180 million fund to support those pupils considered to be in the greatest need. But by describing these students as including “pupils in care, care leavers and the severely disabled”, the government has proved that they have completely misunderstood the point and the importance of the EMA. Whilst support should undoubtedly exist to help these extremely vulnerable groups of young people to continue into education, it should be coming from separate, specific sources designed to support those in such difficult positions. The whole point of the EMA was that it was designed to help out everyday kids from poorer homes- those who might not have otherwise managed the bus fare, or whose parents might, without the incentive of that extra little income, have insisted they left school at 16 and got a job to implement the family finances.
It is specifically these pupils, not from immensely disadvantaged backgrounds or unusual social situations, but simply scraping by and trying to make ends meet enough to reach college, who will be mercilessly hit by the £400 million pounds Michael Gove has stripped from the budget for the scheme.
What will happen now?
Yes, he may have left some money to tackle support for education for care givers and disabled children, but that was not the point of the EMA. The point was to avoid an education system where the poorest children dropped out of school at 16 and never had a shot at higher education. To avoid a two-tier society where the richest are educated best and less fortunate families pull their kids out of education earlier to start earning a living. It will be specifically these members of society who will now be stripped of the opportunity to gain a further education, as a direct result of the short-sighted axing of the EMA.
And just as this decision has been taken to strip away the support system that existed to encourage ordinary, lower income families to send their teenagers to college, the government has also axed Sure Start centres and the Aim Higher scheme, yet more public schemes designed to help those children from the most disadvantaged areas into a stable, life-changing education. Then on top of all that, they have trebled tuition fees to a whopping £9000 and made enormous reductions in real terms to the bursaries and financial support schemes available to help poorer students through university.
Look at the wider picture and you realise that whilst each of these schemes alone targets a specific section of education, their sudden withdrawal in combination across the board is going to result in a tidal wave of enormous proportions sweeping away all support and foundations that were available to support fair access to education in this country.