I am delighted to have secured this debate and to have the opportunity to exchange views with my honourable friend the Minister. I look forward to hearing my Rt Hon. Friend’s comments on the wider issues that I shall raise in this debate.
I would like to discuss the future of the Education Maintenance Allowance scheme and the effects cuts would cause to those young people who rely on it;
I will mention the fears of Charities and other NGOs who represent Further Education students and then tell you my experience of what happens to cuts made to EMA north of the border as an example to keep in mind of what could happen.
This Government has a record second to none in regards to funding of Further Education.
But firstly for those unaware let me give a brief explanation to those listening today who maybe unaware of what EMAs are and why they are such an essential part of further educational support.
EMAs are means-tested allowances of £10, £20 and £30 paid to 16-to-19 year olds who stay in education and come from families where annual household income is below £30,000.
This payment is conditional on attendance.
The policy intent of the EMA is to broaden participation and to improve the retention and attainment of young people of 16 to19 in post compulsory education.
EMAs were introduced nationally in September 2004 in order to reduce this country’s post-16 drop-out rate which was one of the worst in the developed world at the time.
Why we should support EMA and not cut it:
So what has been the success of the EMA scheme since 2004?
Well, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that attainment at GCSE and A-level by recipients of EMA has risen by 40 % since its introduction, and by even more for those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods.
In addition, RCU Market Research Services carried out research on the national scheme and published a report called Evaluation of the EMA National Roll-out 2007, which concluded:
“that EMA has had a positive impact on the retention, achievement and success of certain groups of learners traditionally associated with lower levels of achievement such as: male learners; learners from minority ethnic groups; those with backgrounds of high deprivation and learners on lower level and vocational courses.”
Ipsos MORI published a report in 2008 called Evaluation of Extension of Education Maintenance Allowance to Entry-to-Employment and Programme Led Apprenticeships. This report reached similar conclusions to the RCU research, stating that:
“EMA is reducing NEET (those Not in Employment Education or Training) and also motivating learners to work harder.”
So as you can see the scheme has been widely recognised by independent authorities as being a success and the arguments by those opposite who oppose this scheme are easily silenced.
So it was with mixed emotions that I commend last week’s statement by the Secretary Of State announcing plans to spend £580 million on EMA in order to fund a further 80,000 places. However, he also mentioned that from 2011, poorer pupils who qualify for the EMA – a payment of between £10-£30 each week – will no longer receive an extra £100 for every six months they stay in education.
Charities and organization which represent young people recieving EMA are extremely concerned about recent announcements to scrap the EMA bonuses of £100. Especially when the evaluation evidence for the EMA bonus scheme found that around two-thirds of EMA recipients questioned agreed that the EMA bonus system made them work harder and the same proportion said they attended more lessons because of the EMA attendance bonus rule.
Furthermore, those who work closely with students on EMA inform me that EMA payments and bonuses are an important part of what allows them to continue in further education.
I would be interested to hear the Ministers views on this matter?
Unfortunately this is not the only fear regarding EMAs. There is a growing fear amongst all those interested in EMAs that when the school leaving age is raised to 18 in 2015 then the need for an incentive will become redundant. Could the Minister comment on this?
Could it be it is to do with the problem that they have been classed as an incentive rather than a welfare payment?
As receipt of an EMA does not affect other family benefits.
I believe that we the Government should consider the reclassification of EMAs as payments which are intended as ‘supportive’ rather than soley an ‘incentive’ in the same way JSA is viewed. Otherwise come 2015 when the school leaving age is raised to 18 they will become defunct as an incentive.
My Right Honourable Friend should take for example, those who are living independently at an early age who may need particular support. Access to financial support may be one of the main barriers to participation in education. In general, some of the key barriers include:
- Course fees
- Travel expenses
- The cost of food and other essential items
- Costs associated with their course or placement, such as equipment
- A lack of comprehensive advice and guidance for young people on their entitlement to benefits
For those living with families on low income the overall impact on family finances should be considered. In some instances young people have been discouraged from taking part in education.
This is why I believe that the EMA should be gauranteed beyond 2011.
I am aware that we live in a time when finances are very tight and budgets must be pruned. But I believe there is good example for why this should not be done in regards to EMAs.
As my Right Honourable Friend will be aware the EMA system is devolved and each administration has its own policy responsibility for EMA. But not all Administrations have been as considerate as this one in protecting students from low income families during the recession.
For example, this academic year has seen EMA from my own constituency in Glasgow North West, cut by 20%. My MSP colleague Bill Butler has informed me of the upsurge in constituents who are worse off due to the SNP led Administration’s 20% cut to the EMA budget and changes to the scheme’s eligibility criteria. These changes in criteria to the EMA in Scotland lowered the threshold for the £30 payment and axed the £10 and £20 payments.
These £20 and £10 payments may seem insignificant to some in this House but as a survey carried out by the NUS in 2008 found: 65% of participants on the highest EMA rate of £30 stated that they could not continue to study without EMA. As already stated this maintenance allowance removes some of the barriers to participation in education, and the £10 and £20 brackets are useful in this case, particularly in covering costs towards transport, food, etc.
Furthermore, there is unfortunately fears that progress made will be undone by the SNP administration enforced changes to the eligibility criteria cutting support for those receiving £10 and £20 and cutting the allowance to families with an income of between £20, 351 and £22, 403 with a child, who currently receive the maximum £30.
Figures released by the Scottish Government only last Wednesday on Education Maintenance Allowances show that the old system developed under Labour was successful. The figures showed 39,110 college students and school pupils from low-income families were taking up the allowance in 2007-8, meaning they were up from 38,760 in 2006-07.
The figures also showed that the allowance proved to help school pupils from low-income families stay on in education with 77% of school pupils on the EMA scheme for the full year completing the attendance rates and learning expectations set out for them compared to 70% in 2006-7. The percentage of those on the EMA for a full year, receiving £10 and £20 payments, completing the scheme increased to 82% (the figures for 2006-7 were 74% for those on £10 payments and £73% for those on £20 payments).
I know the Minister has no responsibility for the administration of EMA in Scotland, but I use this as an example of what could happen if support is removed from students on EMA. This view is supported by the National Union of Students for Scotland who believe that these cuts by the SNP administration to the EMA scheme will lead to almost 8,000 students dropping out this year.
Other party’s views:
As for the views of other parties in this House regarding EMA, we know where the SNP stand on EMAs, and their Westminster friends, the Conservatives, have views which are not too dissimilar.
The Leader of the Opposition has previously refused to give a “straight answer” on EMAs in an interview with Sky in 2007.
However, things looked briefly hopeful when two weeks ago he was pushed to answer whether he was committed to EMAs he responded “Yes”.
Yet it didn’t last long, only last week I am informed that when asked by the NUS’s Shane Chowen at an event on Further Education, the Rt. Hon Member for Havant, the Shadow Minister on this issue, responded its: “difficult to commit to it in the current climate”.
I guess this is not a surprise as previously the Conservative party and those on the right have held a highly negative opinion of EMAs.
Only last year the Shadow Minister for Schools, the Rt Hon Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, described EMAs in this House as a “fiasco”.
Shadow Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Member for Epsom and Ewell, has described them as doing “absolutely nothing to help solve this country’s chronic skills shortage.”
Furthermore, the Rt. Hon Member for Surrey Heath, the Shadow Children’s Secretary, has even called the EMA a “flop.”
They clearly haven’t done their homework or they would know the success that EMAs have been.
I feel it is also important to add the views of those who influence the policy of parties of the opposition.
Rightwing think-tanks have been even more disparaging about the EMA in the last year. Policy Exchange, a favorite think tank of the Leader of the Opposition, called for it to be axed in their publication ‘School Funding and Social Justice‘.
Not much justice for poor students here!
Reform, another favorite of the Tory front bench, advocate scrapping the scheme telling the Guardian last October that “this is not an effective way of spending over half a billion pounds of the education budget.”
Perhaps if they asked the students who receive EMAs, and their parents, then a different answer would be got?
But if we wanted a better barometer of the feelings of the parties of the opposition then it can be seen from the lack of support on that side of the House for my EDM on the issue.
Out of the over 80 signatories currently signed up, I have only 1 Conservative and 3 Liberal Democrats who have signed EDM 422.
I wonder which party really cares about the education of our young people?
In conclusion, I have to ask the following questions of all connected with the EMA – I know my Right Honourable Friend cannot answer for the opposition parties but when they read this they can write to me:
- Why would opposition parties want to stop people from low income families staying on in Education?
- What are their real motives and plans for EMA?
- Why can they not commit to the EMA scheme, no ifs no buts?
- What is the minister going to do to take in consideration the concerns of those student leaders concerned about the financial loss incurred by the removal of the bonuses in 2011?
- Does he agree with me that because of the importance of EMA to students from low income families, it should be supported beyond 2011?
I look forward to hearing from my Honourable Friend the Minister and correspondence from all opposition leaders.