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30 August 2011

The abolition of EMA played more of a role in the riots than its creation

EMA helped the poorest working class pupils to struggle on in education and avoid dropping out.

By James Mills

Perhaps it was wrong to except much of a Telegraph article that begins with “in my day”. Brendan O’Neil, who describes himself as someone who wages a “culture war of words” against prejudice and misanthropy, claimed that the Education Maintenance Allowance [EMA] scheme provided a rock star lifestyle to teenage recipients, regardless of the fact that 80 per cent come from families whose household income is below £21,000 a year.

Of course there will be those who misuse any payment scheme – the MPs’ expenses scandal is one obvious example. However, other than anecdotal evidence, there is no proof that the level of misuse of EMA is endemic. In fact, any research into what EMA recipients actually spend their money on has consistently shown that “Young people who were receiving EMA were more likely than other groups of eligible young people to be making a contribution to housekeeping costs, transport and books and equipment for school”.

So far, so Jan Moir. More worrying were his other claims. Apparently EMA caused the riots. How you ask? By creating a “new state yoof (sic) gang” filled with a “sense of entitlement and disrespect for local community and parental authority”. And by failing to put a “strong, moral case for the importance of education” to working class pupils.

The sad truth is that, if anything, EMA probably helped the poorest working class pupils to struggle on in education and avoid dropping out. Ironically, the best evidence for this comes from the one report the government tried to use to justify the abolition of EMA. The report, by the National Foundation for Educational Research, was not actually about EMA but instead barriers to education. In June, its author, Thomas Spielhofer, gave evidence to parliament in which he said the government “misinterpreted” his report and that he “opposes” EMA’s abolition.

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The poll of 838 recipients of EMA, cited by the government, found that 88 per cent of them would like to continue participating in their course regardless of financial incentives. What this really showed, according to Spielhofer, was the level of resilience and commitment among those teenagers who wanted to stay in education. He compared it to pensioners receiving free bus passes – many would still like to use buses if they didn’t receive them. But, naturally, their use of that service would be affected by their ability to pay for it.

As Spielhofer went to lengths to point out to the select committee, there were no supplementary questions about whether they would have dropped out without the payments due to the cost of studying. When that question was asked of EMA recipients earlier this year, 70 per cent said they would be forced to drop out if they lost their EMA. It was probably no surprise, therefore, that the very next month the education select committee published a report that said the government “rushed” its decision to scrap EMA.

Brendan O’Neil offered not one strand of evidence showing EMA caused the riots. If anything, those teenagers who told journalists its abolition influenced them had more proof. Despite Michael Gove on Newsnight protesting that EMA has not yet been cut, he and others forget that those planning to start courses this September may not be able to without prior knowledge of their funding. According to research by the University and College Union, 40 per cent of EMA recipients would not have even started courses without the payments.

Nevertheless, there is no excuse for violence and many recipients of EMA played no part in the riots. But it’s clear that the abolition of EMA, not its introduction, was to blame for the actions of some.

James Mills is campaign director of the Save EMA campaign.