This is unfair to the poorest teenagers in our country

Axing the Education Maintenance Allowance will prevent thousands of young people from deprived backg

Last week the debate around tuition fees focused on whether it would put people from low-income backgrounds off going to university. Yesterday that choice was taken away from them as the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was axed. When I say axed, that is what was done, in effect: because when you turn to page 42 of the Comprehensive Spending Review green book you see that the saving from "replacing" the EMA is £0.5bn, which also happens to be the entire budget for the scheme.

If you don't know what the EMA was, it was basically a means-tested allowance of between £10 and £30, paid to 16-to-19-year-olds who stayed on in education and who were from deprived backgrounds where household income was below £30,810 per year.

Those receiving the £30 payment made up 80 per cent of all recipients; to able to receive this payment, household income had to be below £20,817 per year. This sum may seem insignificant to some, but in a survey carried out by the National Union of Students in 2008, 65 per cent of participants who were on the highest EMA rate of £30 said that they could not continue to study without the EMA.

But if this still does not convince you to their importance, at least the weight of evidence supporting the EMA far outweighs the arguments of any naysayers. For example, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows attainment at GCSE and A-level by recipients of the EMA has risen by 5 to 7 percentage points since its introduction, and by even more for those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods. In addition, RCU Market Research Services carried out an investigation on the national scheme and published a report called Evaluation of the EMA National Roll-out 2007, which concluded:

The EMA is reducing Neet (those Not in Employment, Education or Training) and also motivating learners to work harder.

Ipsos MORI published a report in 2008 called Evaluation of Extension of Education Maintenance Allowance to Entry-to-Employment and Programme-Led Apprenticeships. This report reached similar conclusions to the RCU research:

The EMA is reducing Neet and also motivating learners to work harder.

But, if one wants to look for an example of why the axe should not fall on the EMA system, one has only to look to Scotland. The SNP administration in Holyrood which administers the EMA for Scotland, has cut the budget for the allowance by 20 per cent and made regressive changes to the scheme's eligibility criteria. These changes lowered the threshold for the £30 payment and axed the £10 and £20 payments in Scotland.

The action has unfortunately led to fears in Scotland that progress made so far will be undone by the SNP administration's policy. At the time of the cut, the NUS claimed that it would lead to 8,000 students dropping out. As youth unemployment in Scotland has risen by 7,000, it is hard to dispute their early prediction.

The £20 and £10 payments may seem a small sum to some, but this maintenance allowance removes some of the barriers to participation in education, and the £10 and £20 brackets are useful in this case, particularly in covering transportation costs.

Figures on the EMA released by the Scottish government just last year showed that the old system developed under the Labour administration was successful. The figures showed that 39,110 college students and school pupils from low-income families were taking up the allowance in 2007-2008, up on levels for 2006-2007.

The figures also showed that the allowance helped school pupils from low-income families stay on in education: 77 per cent of school pupils on the EMA scheme for the full year achieved the attendance rates and learning expectations set out for them, compared with 70 per cent in 2006-2007. The percentage of those on the EMA for a full year and receiving £10 or £20 payments who completed the scheme increased to 82 per cent (the figures for 2006-2007 were 74 per cent for those on £10 payments and 73 per cent for those on £20 payments).

These figures may seem just a list of endless statistics to some, but they represent something quite different to me. Since I started the Save EMA campaign, I have had hundreds of emails and messages from teenagers on the Save EMA website who are very worried about their future.

Take this one from Alex:

Without the EMA I wouldn't be able to go to college and become what I have always dreamed of being.

This is something I can relate to, as I was on the allowance, and I know that attending sixth form depended on those payments. When they were delayed, it meant that I missed college. Luckily that didn't happen too often, and unlike my older sisters and all the generations in my family before me, I was able to straight on to university.

My old sixth form now has half the students on the EMA. It pains me greatly to think that there are many people like myself at my old school who will not have the same opportunity to stay on in education and get the qualifications they need to live a better life. But I will leave you with the words of Alex, another of the many people who have emailed me and written on our website.

For me, his comment sums up what the Comprehensive Spending Review means to people like us:

I need EMA otherwise I will have no education. In other words . . . no future.

James Mills is part of the Save EMA Campaign.

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The World Cup you’ve never heard of, where the teams have no state

At the Conifa world cup – this year hosted by the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia – ethnic groups, diaspora communities and disputed territories will battle for footballing glory.

Football's European Championship and the Olympics are set to dominate the back pages over the next few months. How will Team GB fare in Rio? Will the zika virus stop the tournament even going ahead? Will the WAGS prove to be a distraction for the Three Lions? And can Roy Hodgson guide England to a long-awaited trophy?

But before the sprinters are in their blocks or a ball has been kicked, there's a world cup taking place.

Only this world cup is, well, a bit different. There's no Brazil, no damaged metatarsals to speak of, and no Germany to break hearts in a penalty shootout.  There’s been no sign of football’s rotten underbelly rearing its head at this world cup either. No murmurs of the ugly corruption which has plagued Fifa in recent years. Nor any suggestion that handbags have been exchanged for hosting rights.

This biennial, unsung world cup is not being overseen by Fifa however, but rather by Conifa (Confederation of Independent Football Associations), the governing body for those nations discredited by Fifa. Among its member nations are ethnic groups, diaspora communities or disputed territories with varying degrees of autonomy. Due to their contested status, many of the nations are unable to gain recognition from Fifa. As a consequence they cannot compete in tournaments sanctioned by the best-known footballing governing body, and that’s where Conifa provides a raison d’être.

“We give a voice to the unheard”, says Conifa’s General Secretary, Sascha Düerkop, whose world cup kicks off in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia at the end of this week.

“We are proud to give our members a forum where they can put themselves on the map.

“From that we hope to give back in the long run and invest in the football infrastructure in our member nations to help them grow.”

The two week footballing celebration starts with an opening ceremony before Kurdistan and Székely Land kick off the tournament. It follows on from 2014’s maiden competition which saw The County of Nice avenging a group stage defeat to Ellan Vannin from the Isle of Man, to take the spoils in the final via a penalty shoot-out.  There were some blowout scores of note however, with South Ossetia smashing Darfur 20-0 and Kurdistan beating the Tamils 9-0 at the event which took place in Östersund, Sweden. Neither of the finalists will be returning to the tournament – throwing down the gauntlet to another twelve teams. 

This, the second Conifa world cup, is testament to the ever-expanding global footprint of the tournament. Abkhazia will welcome sides from four continents – including Western Armenia, the Chagos Islands, United Koreans in Japan and Somaliland.

Despite the “minor” status of the countries taking part, a smattering of professional talent lends credibility to the event. Panjab can call on the experience of ex-Accrington Stanley man Rikki Bains at the heart of their defence, and the coaching savoir-faire of former Tranmere star Reuben Hazell from the dugout. Morten Gamst Pedersen, who turned out for Blackburn Rovers over 300 times and was once a Norwegian international, will lead the Sapmi people. The hosts complete the list of teams to aiming to get their hands on silverware along with Padania, Northern Cyprus, and Raetia.

A quick glance down said list, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the nations competing have strong political associations – be that through war, genocide, displacement or discrimination. The Chagos Islands is one such example. An archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Chagos’ indigenous population was uprooted by the British government in the 1960s to make way for one of the United States' most strategically important military bases – Diego Garcia.

Ever since, they've been campaigning for the right to return. Their side, based in Crawley, has crowdfunded the trip to the tournament. Yet most of its members have never stepped foot on the islands they call home, and which they will now represent. Kurdistan’s efforts to establish an independent state have been well-highlighted, even more so given the last few years of conflict in the Middle East. The hosts too, broke away from Georgia in the 1990s and depend on the financial clout of Russia to prop up their government.

Despite that, Düerkop insists that the event is one which focuses on action on the pitch rather than off it. 

“Many of the nations are politically interested, but we are non-political,” he says. 

“Some of our members are less well-known in the modern world. They have been forgotten, excluded from the global community or simply are ‘unpopular’ for their political positions.

“We are humanitarians and the sides play football to show their existence – nothing more, nothing less.”

The unknown and almost novel status of the tournament flatters to deceive as Conifa’s world cup boasts a broadcast deal, two large stadiums and a plush opening ceremony. Its aim in the long run, however, is to develop into a global competition, and one which is content to sit below Fifa.

“We are happy to be the second biggest football organisation,” admits Düerkop.

“In the future we hope to have women’s and youth tournaments as well as futsal and beach soccer.”

“Our aim is to advertise the beauty and uniqueness of each nation.”

“But the most important purpose is to give those nations that are not members of the global football community a home.”

George Weah, the first African winner of Fifa World Player of the Year award remarked how “football gives a suffering people joy”.

And after speaking to Düerkop there’s certainly a feeling that for those on the game’s periphery, Conifa’s world cup has an allure which offers a shared sense of belonging.

It certainly seems light years away from the glitz and glamour of WAGs and corruption scandals. And that's because it is.

But maybe in a small way, this little-known tournament might restore some of beauty lost by the once “beautiful game”.