“Great suffering” in store as EMA scrapped

Article published: Friday, December 17th 2010

Thousands of young people from low-income families in Manchester are set to lose out with the scrapping of Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) from next year. MULE looks at the impact this will have – and asks whether the government’s reasons for abolition make the grade.

“EMA helps me because I use it for bus fare, food and things like that…Without it I wouldn’t be able to provide these things for myself. It helps especially with travel fare, as it costs a lot of money on the bus these days.”

Callum Mannion is 17 years old and in his first year of studying for a BTEC qualification in Business at Xaverian College. As he describes, EMA is not simply an incentive to continue in education or a reward for attending lessons, but that which enables many young people to cover the cost of attending college.

Now the government’s proposal to scrap EMA from the next academic year means that 7,944 16-19 year olds in receipt of EMA across Manchester – more than 50 per cent of all young people in further education (FE) in the city – could be denied this vital financial support.  For an idea of what the impact could be you only need to turn to the words of the headteacher of Xaverian College, who in a letter to local MP Gerald Kaufman said it will cause “great suffering”– especially for ethnic minorities and children from single-parent families.

Questionable evidence

EMA was introduced across the country in 2004 with the purpose of encouraging more young people from lower-income households to remain in post-compulsory learning, free of financial constraints. The national roll-out came after pilot schemes in several local authorities – including Manchester – showed that the allowance was linked to positive academic and social benefits in the areas.

The new government’s argument for abolition centres largely on EMA being ineffective at increasing participation in FE.  This claim is based almost entirely on the results of a survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), which found that only 12 per cent of learners said that they would have not continued in education had they not received EMA.

Education Secretary Michael Gove. Photo: Steve Punter

However the validity of this evidence is questionable. The survey’s findings were refuted by the National Union of Students (NUS), who argue that the sample was not representative of EMA recipients as those interviewed were year 10 and 11 pupils yet to enter FE.  They accuse the government of being “astonishingly irresponsible” by basing the decision on a single study, and argue that this flies in the face of a solid body of research which points to the contrary – not least of which a recent NUS survey in which up to 59 per cent of respondents said they could not continue in FE without the financial aid.

And while it is true that overall levels of participation nationwide have not risen substantially since EMA was introduced – only 3 per cent for population as a whole, or 7.5 per cent for those who receive it – this fails to take into account long-term trends which, as demonstrated by educational charity CfBT (Centre for British Teachers), reveal that “in the decade before the roll-out of EMAs there was no positive movement [in increase of participation in post-16 education] at all.”

Missing the target?

The other main crux of the government’s case is that payments are not well-targeted and that many of those who are not in need end up receiving the payments – including some ‘middle class’ children who receive due to family living arrangements.

Gorton South Councillor Julie Reid, who has worked in the FE sector since 1997 is frank on the matter: “That’s absolute rubbish. The people who get it have to be below a certain income and it is mealy-mouthed of the government to target those who clearly require this help.”

It requires no more than a cursory read of the eligibility criteria to realise that those in receipt are not high earners. There are three bands for the allowance in England: £10 a week granted to those from a household with an annual income of up to £30,810; £20 for those on up to £25,521; and the full £30 for those whose families earn up to £20,817. Bearing in mind that the pro rata salary of somebody earning full time national minimum wage is £11,563.50 before tax, these income thresholds raise the question of what EMA detractors define as ‘middle class’.

Students at Loreto College

Tales of students spending their allowance on entertainment and alcohol have caused frenzy among the right-wing press. But the reality is a far more sober one, according to the results of a study in Scotland, which found that four out of ten college EMA recipients used the money to help contribute towards household costs.

A support member of staff who works at Loreto College in Hulme shares her experience: “Many of [the recipients] use it for essential things like food and transport. It also helps in regards to parents, as it allows us to ask [the parents] how things are going for a student without intruding on their family’s financial situation.

“We have a lot of young people around the age of 16 and 17 in difficult family situations – such as neglect, abuse and poverty – and EMA means that they can escape this and still access education. The idea of it being taken away is ridiculous.”

Achievement undermined

Another benefit of EMA is that by alleviating financial constraints it eases the pressure to work alongside studies. Research indicates that without the allowance many students would be forced to work longer hours in employment leading to reduced attainment: figures from the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) show that three quarters of students felt they would otherwise need to find a job. With a fifth of respondents already working more than 15 hours a week, increased working time could lead to detrimental effect on achievement – a fact which holds true in the experience of Cllr Julie Reid:

“[The abolition of EMA] will force more students into finding work to support their studies, even though they shouldn’t do more than 12 hours a week – a European rule. With working the dropout rate is always higher, but in the current economic climate students struggle to find work anyway.

“I see it as a paradox: by taking away the allowance, they are pressuring students from poorer backgrounds to sacrifice their studies and find work – when there is none in the first place.”

This effect of work on study is not just anecdotal: the negative impact of term-time work for students in further education was confirmed in a study commissioned by the then Department for Education and Skills, which found that “[employed work] had a serious impact on examination results if they occupied more than ten hours a week.”

Can lead a horse to water…

Loreto College

Another seemingly persuasive criticism is that by acting as an incentive, EMA succeeds in getting 16 year olds through the college doors – but little else. Again this line of attack is blown out of the water by research from the Centre for Research in Social Policy (CRiSP) which found that in the pilot authorities drop-out was far less likely.

Moreover, dismissing EMA’s effect on the basis of only a small overall increase in participation takes no account of more nuanced aspects of the data, which shows that EMA has had significant success in terms of entry and attainment on marginal social groups – where there is typically far less engagement with post-compulsory education and training.

This latter point is expressly stated in the 2007 IFS report, which found that the impact of EMA on attainment was most concentrated among students from the most deprived areas and learners from ethnic minority groups.  In the light of these positive benefits brought by EMA, the government’s denigration of this ‘ineffective subsidy’ rapidly withers.

For Cllr Reid, the success measured in terms of improved attendance and achievement illustrates that EMA is part of a “carrot-and-stick. It is not just a handout that they give to anybody. Each college sets it own rules regarding attendance and attainment, and if a student is not meeting the targets then we can discuss the issues with them and eventually withdraw it if needs be.”

This experience is echoed by Wythenshawe Brooklands Councillor Sue Murphy, who sits as Chair of Manchester College’s Governing Body. “The group in the college who receive EMA also have one of the best attendance records – if you don’t attend and work you don’t get paid – I think that’s also a valuable preparation for work.”

Selective reading

In carefully selecting data which backs its case for abolition, the government has been accused of distorting research by the Association of Colleges. This is seen through ministers’ reliance on a study by the IFS in their claim that nine of ten recipients would have continued without the grant – even though the report made no such finding. Similar misleading statements have come from Education Minister Michael Gove, who has said that EMA increased the numbers staying on beyond GCSE by less than 400, when in fact the estimate by the IFS of those continuing in FE colleges was closer to 18,500.

This manipulation of data was condemned by the IFS earlier this week in a report which dismissed many of the coalition’s arguments against EMA. In a summary of their studies of the allowance’s impact, they found that the costs of EMA are likely to be outweighed in the long-term by the higher wages of those in receipt and therefore that ‘wastage’ was offset. Further, behind the government’s methodology for of assessment is the assumption that increased participation in FE is all that matters. This underlines the limitations of a narrow reading of its impacts – which ignores all the quantitative benefits associated with the allowance, such as proven reduced crime levels and a higher-skilled workforce.

A bleak future?

For Manchester the prognosis appears grim. EMA’s deeply-rooted presence in the city’s colleges means that its withdrawal will be all the more acutely felt. The city has some of the most deprived wards in the country and falls into the top 10 per cent of local authorities for numbers of 16-18 year olds not in employment, education or training (NEET): precisely the kind of post-school limbo that EMA was designed to eradicate.

Yet the government’s proposed replacement with a ‘discretionary learner fund’ of a mere £74m – compared to the current EMA pot of almost £580m – has not allayed fears that many young people will end up excluded. With estimates of job losses in the city of at least 11,000 over the next two years, the removal of financial support may be decisive for many who are unsure whether to continue in education.  In the words of Cllr Sue Murphy: “I think that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to see college or FE as an option, especially if there are financial pressures at home.”

Back at Xaverian the students remain incredulous at the plans to scrap the allowance.  “EMA is vital to give everyone an equal chance,” says Heather Crosby, 17. “How can they scrap it when it is clearly having such a positive effect in and around college?”

Michael Pooler with interviews of Xaverian College Students by Sam Worrall

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