A choice too far

EMA reforms in England will force teachers to ration funding.

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

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times