The Government is right to replace Educational Maintenance Allowance but I have concerns about the detail
Yesterday, I spoke in a debate about the future of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA). The Government is proposing to replace it with an enhanced Discretionary Learner Support Fund but the budget for this will be significantly less than the current budget for EMAs.
In many ways, EMAs are emblematic of Labour's approach to politics. The aim - to increase participation in post-16 education - is a good one and there is no doubt that each year EMA helps thousands of young people to stay on at school or college.
But like many of the former Government’s policies, it represents poor value for money for the taxpayer and it is a top-down solution that doesn't take account of individuals’ differing needs.
It is available to anyone aged 16-18 on a full-time further education course at a school or college (or on a course leading to an apprenticeship or a Foundation Learning Programme) from a family with a household income of less than £30,810 – in other words, it isn’t just targeted at the poorest families but goes to people from families with above average incomes. Two different reports found that only about 10% of the people who get EMA say that they wouldn’t stay on at school or college without it. There was some dispute about these figures during the debate but no-one denied that the scheme could be better targeted.
And everyone accepted that different young people have different needs. Some may have special needs or be caring for a parent or have to travel a long way to school or college. But EMA takes no account of these differences. You get £30 a week if your family income is less than £20,817, £20 a week if it is between £20,818 and £25,521 and £10 a week if it is between £25,522 and £30,810. Surely it would be better to let individual schools and colleges, who know the particular circumstances of their students, decide how much each student needs?
I do have a number of concerns however. First, is the funding that the Government has made available for the new Discretionary Learner Support Fund sufficient? Second, how will this funding be allocated to schools and colleges?
The Government has already done a lot to try to narrow the gap between the educational qualifications of those from well-off and deprived backgrounds – protecting the schools budget from cuts, introducing a pupil premium to provide extra funding for pupils from less well-off backgrounds, additional investment in early years education, additional apprenticeships and encouraging all pupils to take a core number of academic subjects at GCSE so that they have the necessary skills for today’s jobs market. Given the financial mess it has inherited from the previous Government, it can’t protect every area of spending. But the decision to replace EMA is a painful one that will affect many of my constituents and we need urgent answers to these questions.