Never give up on a good thing, by Mick Fletcher

30 Oct 09
Grants to keep young people from low-income families in school have been called a waste of money, but they are doing their job

The closer we get to the election – and to the inevitable period of public spending austerity – the louder the criticism of one of the schemes that has made a difference to disadvantaged households.

The Education Maintenance Allowance, introduced in 2004/05, is a means-tested grant of between £10 and £30 per week for young people from low-income families continuing in full-time education post-16. It is intended to increase the participation of young people in post-compulsory learning by providing a financial incentive to attend school or college.

But it has come under attack, most recently from the Local Government Association. It claimed: that the ‘vast majority’ of 16-year-olds who received the money would have stayed on in education anyway; that the EMA had a minimal effect on ‘staying on’ rates for 17- and 18-year-olds; and that it was a waste of money. Think-tanks have also referred to the EMA as a ‘deadweight’ expense and a ‘flop’.

However, my study, published by the Centre for British Teachers Education Trust, shows clearly that EMAs have been a successful innovation and should be maintained.

The Centre for Research in Social Policy and the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that EMAs had led to an increase in post-16 participation of around four percentage points; the Learning and Skills Council found that young people in receipt of an EMA were more likely to complete their course than those without; and A-level performance was said to have improved by around 4.5% at ages 18 and 19.

Arguments about the relevance of an incentive if the leaving age were changed are a distraction. No-one believes that legislation, by itself, will achieve 100% participation. Indeed, most agree that an increase in voluntary participation is required before legislation could be contemplated.

The fall in participation between 16 and 17 remains the major obstacle to the aspiration to increase participation towards 100% by 2015. With evidence showing what the EMA can achieve – and evaluations that show the efficacy of the allowance is linked to its rate – the grant for 17-year-olds should be increased, if only to keep up with inflation.

If you have an integrated phase of learning for 14 to 19-year-olds, there needs to be an integrated system of support – a role that the EMA could take. A ‘ladder of support’ from 14 to 19 could provide escalating incentives to aim high and achieve. In the pre-16 phase, support could concentrate on performance bonuses; for 14 and 15-year-olds, it could be financed by means-testing child benefit.

EMAs should be maintained despite the current spending squeeze. There are other less well focused policies that cost a similar or greater amount. If child benefit and child tax credits for 16 to 19-year-olds were means-tested on the same scale as EMAs, they would produce savings of around £585m (a similar sum to abolishing EMAs) and £180m respectively – but at the expense of the rich, rather than the poor.

The EMA is distinguished from most other forms of financial support by being conditional. Young people must  satisfy eligibility conditions, and their performance has to meet standards based on attendance, punctuality and performance, including handing work in on time and making satisfactory progress. This is a strength of the EMA – it is targeted to do a job rather than being a ‘benefit’ seen as an entitlement.

There are increasing calls for ‘progressive’ forms of austerity in public spending, to ensure that support goes to the poorest families and not more generally to the middle classes. Protecting the EMA will be an obvious platform for retaining a tight focus on spend, linking money to achievement and providing a small but influential fillip to the motivation and choices made by people at a highly formative stage of their lives.

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