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.