If you could prolong the education of just one person, who would you choose: a straight-A student with a talent for science, or an academically average student from a poor family who cares for two sick parents and may end up being the breadwinner for her younger siblings before the age of 20? Given the chance, the talented scientist will likely become a doctor or, at the very least, still succeed in life. The young carer is unlikely to make it to university, but without qualifications the likelihood of her getting a job to support her family is also worryingly low. It's not a choice any teacher should face, but from September we will.
For the past decade, every young person in education after the age of 16 could apply for the Education Maintenance Allowance - a means-tested cash benefit. At present, just under half a million young people receive the full amount of £30 a week because their annual family income is less than £20,817.
The latest Education Bill has scrapped EMA in England and replaced it with a fund, given to schools to cover cases of "hardship". How the money will be divvied up among the school's neediest, and what conditions must be met to receive it, are entirely at the school's discretion, but an individual can only receive a maximum £800 - two-thirds of the current allowance.
How can schools decide who is most deserving of this money? Recently I taught a gifted student who secured a place studying medicine at a top university. Shortly before his GCSE exams, the school's education welfare officer noticed his erratic pattern of absences. During a home visit she discovered that the student and his 14-year-old brother were alternating days at school because they had only one pair of school trousers to share between them. Their mother could not afford another pair until the end of the month, and so had desperately planned their absences to ensure that neither missed any one lesson too often.
A mother going to such lengths will not approach a school with a begging bowl to ask for hardship funds, nor should she be asked to do so. Even if she did overcome her embarrassment, whom might she be pitted against?
In the UK, more than 175,000 children care for their parents and over half live in one-parent households. Working in inner-city schools, I have taught several students caring for terminally ill parents. Sibling guardians are rarely provided with financial support, as they fall outside the eligibility criteria of local authorities. The EMA is a lifeline for this group, providing a financial buffer so that they can complete their studies and gain a worthwhile job.
I want to believe schools will be fair in selecting eligible candidates, but experience suggests this won't always be the case. Take the conversation during a meeting I recently attended at the Department for Education. When I raised the dilemma of pitting "bright but poor" students against "average but desperate", I was derided by one ex-teacher. "Take the bright one," she said: "his results will be excellent for the school." Many in the room agreed. In the face of a passionate plea from another comprehensive teacher, her reply was as devoid of emotion as it was ironic: "What did you expect me to say? We're teachers, not social workers."
The coalition will argue that those most in need have not lost the EMA. Children in or leaving foster care will still be able to claim a benefit; in fact, ministers argue, it has increased. While such platitudes are small, they should be celebrated. Children in care are among the most likely to leave education without qualifications and go on to become unemployed. Couple this with their lack of a stable home environment, and it is easy to see why this group is vulnerable to homelessness and criminal behaviour.
The rise, however, is only 78p per week - less than the cost of two pints of milk - and it will go to just 12,000 young people. In no way can this be used to justify the loss of finance to half a million other young people in need.
No one denies that the EMA could have been targeted more specifically to those in need. Approximately 70,000 students receive the lowest payment of £10 per week, a figure important to some but unlikely to make much impact for most families, and which, if cut, would have provided some relief to burgeoning education budgets. But the new system isn't better; it is more prejudiced, more subjective and will leave young people's education in the hands of a school leader's whim about who does or does not deserve an education.
As for whom I would choose, the scientist or the carer? I don't know. I am proud to be a teacher and not a social worker. Being a great teacher means believing everyone can and should learn.
Laura McInerney is an advisory teacher at a state school in east London