Education maintenance allowances are they facing extinction?20 October 2009
Without the £30 a week the government gives her to stay on at college, Bethan admits she wouldn't have turned up to many, or even any, of her A-level classes.
Money is extremely tight in the 17-year-old's family, with only her mother's boyfriend in work, as a part-time cleaner.
Her £30 education maintenance allowance (EMA) - given to the poorest teenagers to help them to stay in school or college after they hit 16 - enables Bethan to afford class trips, ringbinders and the odd item of clothing. More important, she says, it gives her the opportunity to step out of a pattern nearly everyone in her family has followed: that of leaving school at 16 with few qualifications and little chance of a stimulating job.
To qualify for the EMA, students are not just means-tested against family income, they must work sufficiently hard to reach a satisfactory standard in their studies and regularly and punctually attend classes.
"It will help me get to university and eventually become an interpreter, I hope," says Bethan, from south Wales. "At the moment, I rely on it. My mum can hardly afford to pay rent, let alone give me money for my college stationery and clothes."
But five years after it was rolled out nationally, the EMA is looking vulnerable, a study published today by CfBT Education Trust argues.
It may help 526,000 of the poorest teenagers, but at a cost of £549m a year, the EMA "seems set to figure as part of the political debate," says the report, called Should We End the EMA?
There are two main reasons for this, argues the study's author, Mick Fletcher, an education consultant and visiting research fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London.
The first is that from 2013, all young people in England will be required to continue in education or training to 17. In 2015, they will have to continue in education or training to 18. Why then, the EMA's critics ask, should we have a financial incentive for teenagers to stay on in education?
The second is that the growing crisis in public finance means serious cuts in public expenditure are being sought by all political parties.
But the CfBT study concludes that despite this, the EMA must be maintained - albeit with a few tweaks.
"No serious commentator believes that legislation by itself will achieve 100% participation," Fletcher says. "Indeed, most agree that an increase in voluntary participation is required before legislation could be contemplated. In any event, both major opposition parties are opposed to the use of compulsion. The EMA should be seen as reflecting the opportunity costs of participation," he says. They should encourage students to keep paid work during term-time down to a level that does not impair their educational performance, he says.
And as for budget constraints, there are other less well focused policies that cost as much as the EMA or even more, the study argues.
Fletcher recommends that both child benefit and child tax credit for 16- to 19-year-olds should be means-tested on the same scale as the EMA. This would mean that teenagers on child benefit or child tax credit whose household income is under £20,817 a year should be eligible for the maximum benefits, while those on more than £30,810 should not receive anything. This would bring savings of £765m, Fletcher estimates.
Controversially in the current climate, Fletcher suggests the EMA for 17-year-olds should increase. There has been no change in the maximum amount - £30 - since the EMA was introduced. Just to keep pace with inflation, the sum should rise to £40, he argues. The increase is important because the fall in participation between 16 and 17 remains the main obstacle to increasing participation towards 100% by 2015, he says.
To save money, though, the EMA should only be given to the worst-off teenagers, says Fletcher. At the moment, there are three bands. Teenagers whose household income is between £25,522 and £30,810 a year are entitled to £10 a week, while those whose household income is between £20,818 and £25,521 are eligible for £20 a week. "The lower bands have little impact on participation," Fletcher says.
Others policy-makers have different ideas of how they would change the EMA to save money.
The Liberal Democrats don't plan to scrap the allowance, says David Laws, the party's education spokesman. But they do intend to abolish bonuses that are given on top of the weekly EMA for good behaviour or excellent attendance. These cost about £100m a year, Laws says. "There is quite a lot of resentment among those who don't receive the EMA that their mates are getting money for turning in their coursework," Laws says.
The Association of Colleges suggests that local authorities should receive the money that would otherwise go to teenagers eligible for all but the maximum EMA. The authorities should then have to spend this money on easing the cost of travelling to and from colleges or schools. Travel costs are going to be all the more important for students of the new diploma qualifications, agrees Laws. Diploma classes are often away from the school or college at which students have enrolled.
Dale Bassett, a senior researcher at the centre-right thinktank Reform, says the EMA should be scrapped altogether. "The EMA was meant to encourage low-income 16- to 18-year-olds to stay in education," he says. "But at a cost of over £500m last year, the scheme is not delivering value for money. Research shows that the EMA has had little if any impact on overall educational attainment. With more young people than ever already in post-16 education, there is likely to be a high rate of these people being paid to have education they would have had anyway - and when the school-leaving age is raised to 18, the allowance will become completely obsolete. In these fiscally straitened times this is not an effective way of spending over half a billion pounds of the education budget."
This is simply not true, says Fletcher. He cites analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies from two years ago, which shows that with the EMA students' A-level performance improved by about 4.5%. Women from the most deprived backgrounds were 2.4 percentage points more likely to achieve the equivalent of an A-level by 19 with the support of the EMA. For men, the impact was smaller - 1.3 percentage points in the most deprived neighbourhoods by 18. Asian and black women were 4.3 and 6.2 percentage points more likely to achieve the equivalent of an A-level with the EMA.
The Conservatives say they have no specific plans to reform the EMA. Michael Gove, the shadow children's secretary, says: "We're committed to doing everything we can to close the gap in achievement between the poorest and the wealthiest at school."
Iain Wright, the minister for 14-19 reform, says: "EMA is a highly successful and popular programme that has seen more young people from lower income households stay on in learning after 16. We are determined to continue to support young people post 16. That is why we have guaranteed all young people who want one a place in education or training this September - with an investment of over £6.8bn over the next two years.
"Research has found that EMA has a positive and significant impact on the participation and attainment of young people, and EMA will continue once we raise the participation age in 2013."
Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers, whose members include 60 further education colleges would support this: "Take away their £30 a week and the chances of keeping some of the teenagers who receive it enthused enough to attend school or college are slim," he says.