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If the coalition wants to reduce NEETs, it should bring back EMA

Since the Education Maintenance Allowance was abolished, full-time attendance for 16-18-year-olds has fallen by 3.8 per cent.

Protesting students carry a cardboard skip opposite Downing Street on March 16, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

"It should not be forgotten", wrote William Hazlitt in his classic essay On the Ignorance of the Learned, "that the least respectable character among modern politicians was the cleverest boy at Eton." This will never seem truer than from the discussion over the government’s plans to take benefits away from young people, only a week after an old Etonian proclaimed permanent austerity, and days after another says the super rich are a "put-on minority".

It seems perverse that when the number of NEETs in our country is larger than a city the size of Birmingham, the way to solve this problem is to further undermine them, while at the same time further enriching those whp benefit most from government policy.

What this represents is another crude right-wing attack on social security, portraying benefits not as part of a safety net to protect people, regardless of age, from market forces beyond their control, but as social stigma, handed down from on high to those deemed victims of their own fecklessness.

This unbalance in priorities is building up future costs. According to the government, the estimated cost across the lifetime of each 16-18 year old NEET equates to a £56,000 loss to the taxpayer, and a further £104,000 loss to the economy; and when combined and added up, the aggregate cost of all those classed as NEET is over £100bn.

Instead of talking tough on young people, the damage being done to them should be reconsidered. Evidence is slowly rising that austerity policies, such as the abolition Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), were a grave mistake by this government. From the Department for Education’s own data, for the second year since the EMA was abolished at the end of 2010, full-time attendance for 16-18-year-olds has fallen by 3.8 per cent. This equates to over 52,100 fewer students lost from the education system, with a potential cost of £8.3bn added to the taxpayer and the economy if they go on to be NEET.

This is the equivalent of filling the House of Commons Chamber more than 80 times over. It is bigger than the student body of both Oxford and Cambridge combined. And if it was assembled in one straight line, it would reach from Nick Clegg’s house in Putney to the door of No. 10 Downing Street, and almost back again.

Of course, it is too soon to prove with certainty that this is due to the scrapping of EMA alone. But it does suggest that the government has dangerously undermined an entire age group through policies such as this. And it provides fertile ground for the proposals by IPPR to fix "the broken school-to-work transition" with a 'youth allowance' and 'youth guarantee'.

But the way in which the reforms are presented risks chastising young people for problems they did not create and letting the super rich off the hook. For example, one chilling suggestion in the IPPR report is the withdrawal of Employment and Support Allowance from disabled young people, forcing them to take a near 40% cut in their incomes by instead claiming the 'youth allowance'. This is done chiefly to save money. It could prove penny wise, but pound foolish, if it makes recipients hostile to the scheme. 

As for Cameron and Osborne, in the week we found NEETs remain a city-sized problem, they must show young people in the Autumn Statement that they are respectable characters - and not just clever boys from Eton.

James Mills is a Labour researcher and led the Save EMA campaign