Monday, 11 October 2010

Tory plans to abolish grants for poorer pupils will knock life-chances, and social mobility for all

What with all the fuss about Tory plans to abandon the idea of universal Child Benefit, a far more worrying change to the way the Government administers benefits to under-19s could be around the corner: the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance (EMAs).

EMAs, which are worth up to £30 a week, are means-tested benefits payable to 16-19 year olds to help them meet the costs of staying in education - and they work.

The evidence seems to show that EMAs increase participation in further education by about six per cent a year. By definition, those six per cent of learners are the least-well-off in society, and often the most vulnerable in other ways too. In some cases dropping out of education or training will mean dropping out of the formal economy altogether and be devastating for their longer-term life chances and the whole idea of social mobility.

EMAs are restricted to low-income households, and predominantly taken up by those with low achievement levels at school, those from ethnic minorities and those from single-parent families, so are a vital tool for increasing social mobility. EMA is also conditional on the young person turning up to college (or school) so if they don’t turn up, they don’t get their EMA.

And yet the Government looks set to abolish them entirely, at the behest of 'free-market ideology' - and the bidding of a number of right-wing think-tanks and pressure groups, including the Policy Exchange, the Institute of Directors and the Tax Payers Alliance.

More EMA recipients find themselves in Further Education (about 69%) than any other type of school or college: so cutting them is likely to lead to more drop-outs and course closures in the vocational and training sector than any other.

Here in Brighton and Hove, for example, more than half of all 16-19-year-old students at City College are in receipt of EMA: 47 per cent of all students in the age range receiving the maximum £30 per week award.

The impact on EMAs' withdrawal could be enormous for the college and anyone in our city concerned at the range of non-academic training routes available locally.

The net result will be, of course, more children from poorer backgrounds dropping out of education and employment entirely. Fewer vocational courses being offered to anyone at all, and lower social mobility - er, exactly the vision of a Tory society, I suppose.

Coming ahead of massive cuts to the Further Education budget, the careers and benefit services provided by Connexions, the closure of nurseries like Bright Start - and the downgrading of teachers' pensions announced last week - it seems like Tory Brighton is becoming a pretty nasty place to grow up, one way and another.

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