This week brought another round of protests from students who are undeniably and understandably furious about the government’s attack on the their educational prospects and the prospects of the young people who come after them. Cuts to teaching budgets, raised tuition fees, socially segregated free schools and academies and the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) will dramatically re-shape the education system in this country and provide damning evidence that the coalition’s commitment to educational equality is nothing more than a sham. Being in opposition to this government is like being in a wind tunnel. Ministers bombard us with announcements, forcing us to pick our battles carefully.
For me, the scrapping of EMA will have an enormous impact on thousands of my young constituents (4,500 currently receive it) and I will be campaigning on this over the coming months. This week I wrote to the schools minister, Nick Gibb, with my colleague Teresa Pearce because the government’s decision will affect poor students right across the country, from northern pit towns to London estates. With the move towards a leaving age of 18 it is imperative that we provide young people with the means and incentive to stay in education. Michael Gove talks a good talk about discipline but then launches an attack on the young people who have the discipline to attend college to get their EMA.
The significance of the EMA reward should not be understated: it creates an incentive that is critical for those who would otherwise be alienated from school. In one Wigan college, over half of students are currently in receipt of the top £30 rate of the allowance. Not only does EMA provide valuable support for students who would otherwise be unable to gain qualifications past GCSE level, there are other benefits to be taken into consideration, not least the impact on the local economy. Based on the 2008/09 statistics, EMA recipients of only two colleges in Wigan provide almost £75,000 per week in additional revenue to local businesses and service providers. The vast majority of EMA funding will be spent, almost immediately, within the UK economy, and in no small part on services that create local employment opportunities.
The argument for scrapping EMA is twofold: firstly, the ‘mess’ that Labour supposedly left the unsuspecting Conservative Party to clear up means that they are reluctantly forced to cut public spending and secondly that it will be replaced with a means tested and directed payment to those most in need. This logic does not even begin to stack up. The cuts are a political choice and not a necessary evil at all. As Richard Murphy at the Tax Justice Network points out, the beleaguered school sports partnerships, for example, could be funded, if only UK firms actually paid the tax that the rest of us are required by law to pay; that doesn’t seem too much to ask. As for replacing the EMA with another apparently identical scheme – it doesn’t make sense until you realise that the new hardship funds are drastically less well-funded and is a clear demonstration of the government’s position on supporting low and middle income students into further and higher education.
The details of the new discretionary learner support fund are yet to be released but initial statements suggest that it will not include any costs for travel, it will be administered by individual schools and colleges and provide headteachers with the discretion to decide which pupils should receive it. The practicalities of this seem absurd, expecting colleges to means-test students. I can’t imagine that many would opt for this.
The EMA is a crucial plank of the agenda to widen participation in education. If Michael Gove wants more people from poor households to get to Oxford and Cambridge, as he claims, then he is going the wrong way about it and, if the demonstrations this week are anything to go by, he will live to regret it.