Since becoming shadow education secretary three weeks ago, Tristram Hunt has successfully begun to regain control of the debate from Michael Gove, and Labour's new star pupil has made another notable intervention today. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he suggests that the party could reintroduce the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), scrapped by the coalition in 2010, and pay for it through its previous pledge to remove Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest pensioners. He says: "A bit of rebalancing towards young people wouldn’t go amiss."
Hunt's words will cheer Labour activists who have long warned that the abolition of EMA, which paid up to £30 a week to 16-to-18-years-olds living in households whose income is less than £30,800 a year, will reduce working-class participation in education and decreas social mobility. The coalition rejected the payment as a deadweight cost since around 90% of pupils would have stayed on anyway. But an IFS study suggested that it benefited the economy by increasing the productivity of all pupils (for instance, EMA recipients were required to attend 100% of their lectures).
In addition, a report by Barnardo's warned that the coalition's £180m replacement Bursary Fund (targeted at young people who are in care, leaving care or on income support) was leaving many disadvantaged pupils without support. It found that some were skipping meals in order to afford their bus fares to college. The charity's chief executive Anne Marie Carrie said:
"The Bursary Fund is an unfair and totally inadequate replacement for the Education Maintenance Allowance.
"The government has a moral duty to urgently invest in adequate help for 16- to 19-year-olds from poorer backgrounds to stay the course and complete their education or training.
"The alternative is to risk losing a whole generation to the trap of long-term unemployment because they don't have any qualifications."
She suggested increasing payments to £30 a week and widening funding to all those who have received free school meals. Reforming the fund along those lines would be a reasonable aim for Labour. While Ed Miliband and Ed Balls would likely baulk at the full £500m cost of reintroducing EMA (the removal of Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest 5% of pensioners would raise just £100m), providing more support for those who need it would offer a powerful dividing line with the Tories.