The government’s “Don’t quit now!” campaign, complete with upbeat website and psychedelic graphics, urges 16-year-olds to think twice before fleeing the classroom.
But although the percentage from the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder who remain in full-time education has increased significantly, disadvantaged boys are still twice as likely to leave school at 16 as their middle-class counterparts. Probably the only incentive powerful enough to overcome the macho peer pressure to forsake the “feminine” world of learning is cold, hard cash. And this is what the government has been offering in the form of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) pilot scheme.
Young people aged between 16 and 19 whose parents’ income is less than £30,000 a year get up to £40 a week if they stay in full-time education, with a bonus of £50 when they complete the course. If their attendance and attainment is good, they get points on a smart card, like a supermarket loyalty card, entitling them to a range of goodies, such as travel concessions or a free McDonald’s.
New Labour’s rights and responsibilities ethos demands “something for something”. The student has to sign a learning contract promising full attendance at lessons and completion of assignments. If the contract is broken, payment is forfeited and the bonus may be jeopardised. Call it downright bribery, call it draconian paternalism, but it seems to work.
From the first year of the pilot scheme, it seems that EMAs encourage an extra 5 per cent of young people from low-income families to stay in full-time education. Crucially, an extra 6 per cent of young men – 10.9 per cent in rural areas – chose to return to the classroom. EMAs also appear to reduce drop-out. One college reported a 92 per cent retention rate among EMA students, compared to the average of 85 per cent.
The scheme, then, seems to tackle the most fundamental cause of non-participation in higher education: the large number of poorer students who fail to reach the basic two A-level entry barrier. So why stop there? Why not extend it to 19- to 24-year-olds? Many in this age group seize the opportunity to leave school at 16, but by 19 are either unemployed or in low-skilled jobs. Some want to gain more qualifications, but are deterred by the negligible financial support available. Others need more incentives. An EMA could be the solution. If this group could be motivated to get back into education, the costs would easily be recovered in reduced social exclusion and lower unemployment.
In fact, the government should apply the EMA principle to all further and higher education. Despite complaints about tuition fees, university students receive a far more generous subsidy from the tax-payer than most other learners. They are also likely to enjoy earnings well above the average. But poorer students do seem to be deterred by upfront fees and loans. Debt aversion is widespread and the disadvantaged, lacking self-confidence and uncertain about the standards expected, often see a degree as a risky investment. Their chances of dropping out are also high. Young people from poor homes do not read rate-of-return statistics; they look for successful graduate role models.
An HEMA (Higher Education Maintenance Allowance), offered for just the first year, would help to overcome debt aversion and minimise the perceived risks. The first year is a crucial period that demands rapid acclimatisation to what is, for some, an alien environment. By the second year, students should have a much clearer sense of a university’s financial, academic and lifestyle demands. They should then feel sufficiently confident to make a larger personal investment in their education by acquiring loans and/or other sources of income, such as company sponsorship.
The commitment to seek financial advice should be enshrined in a learning contract. This would follow the EMA format, but with less emphasis on attendance and more on assignment deadlines and regular contact with a personal tutor. Those eligible for allowances often need more monitoring and assistance, and this would be guaranteed if it were explicitly linked to payment.
Some might object that the contract would be patronising to older students and would stigmatise the disadvantaged. But that is an argument for making the learning contract universal. It would make the roles and responsibilities of the individual, the state and the college or university far more transparent. Few students are remotely aware, for example, of the full costs of their courses. The contract would be a source of empowerment – students should be clear about the obligations of their college and ensure they are fulfilled. A clause on voluntarily contributing to the costs of educating the next generation should be prominent.
During the past four years, Labour has made some progress in combating social exclusion. A more comprehensive application of initiatives such as the EMA in the second term would strike at the root causes of inequality of opportunity and social disadvantage.
Wendy Piatt is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. This is the latest in a series of articles, prepared by the New Statesman and the Fabian Society, on ideas for a second Labour term