Report claims it is a success, but what about its long term future?
The Education Maintenance Allowance was introduced in 2004/05 by a Government that wanted to increase the participation of young people in post compulsory learning by providing a financial incentive to attend school or college. It is a national system of means-tested allowances of between £10 and £30 per week for young people continuing in full-time education post- 16. To qualify for the EMA, students are not just means-tested against family income, they must work sufficiently hard to reach a satisfactory standard in their studies and regularly and punctually attend classes. It helps around 526,000 of the poorest teenagers, at a cost of £549m a year. A new report (Should We End the EMA?; CfBT Education Trust; Oct 2009)says that there is a threat to the longer term future of the EMA scheme. There are two main reasons for this according to the report.
Firstly, that from 2013, all young people in England will be required to continue in education or training to 17. In 2015, they will have to continue in education or training to 18. Why then, the EMA’s critics ask, should we have a financial incentive for teenagers to stay on in education? The second is that the growing crisis in public finance and the need to address the burgeoning deficit means serious cuts in public expenditure are being sought by all political parties, across the board. However the report claims that there is “robust evidence” that EMAs have increased participation and achievement among 16 and 17 year olds, and contributed to improved motivation and performance. There is good evidence too the report says that those who are encouraged to stay on by EMAs achieve results that are at least as good as others. So this is not participation for its own sake but participation that has the effect of increasing skill levels and thereby life chances. Far from cutting back on the EMA or abolishing it completely Mick Fletcher the reports author, told the Guardian that he believes the EMA for 17-year-olds should actually increase. The report states that evaluation evidence shows that the efficacy of the allowance is linked to its rate. And there has been no change in the maximum amount – £30 – since the EMA was introduced. Just to keep pace with inflation, the sum should rise to £40, he argues. The increase is important because the fall in participation between 16 and 17 remains the main obstacle to increasing participation towards 100% by 2015, he says. But Fletcher also says that to save money the EMA should only be given to the worst-off teenagers. At the moment, there are three bands. Teenagers whose household income is between £25,522 and £30,810 a year are entitled to £10 a week, while those whose household income is between £20,818 and £25,521 are eligible for £20 a week. “The lower bands have little impact on participation,” Fletcher says. Is Fletcher naïve in making apparently costly proposals against a backdrop of swingeing cuts in budgets?
He anticipates this charge by claiming that with a few tweaks in other areas the proposals could in fact be cost neutral as there are other what he termed “less well focused policies” that cost a similar or greater amount. The report states “These changes could be broadly cost neutral if the lower band allowances were abolished and CTC threshold was aligned with EMA”
What about the Tories? When asked on Sky TV in 2007 whether the EMA was safe under the Tories David Cameron refused unsurprisingly to give a straight yes or no answer, because he claimed it might be affected by legislation raising the school leaving age and the Tories would have to look at it in detail in the light of this legislation . Michael Gove, the Shadow Education Secretary, however told the Guardian this week that they have no specific plans to reform the EMA. He said “We’re committed to doing everything we can to close the gap in achievement between the poorest and the wealthiest at school.” This doesn’t amount to an unqualified endorsement of the scheme, nor is it the kiss of the death. However, the Reform think tank, which along with Policy Exchange is close to Tory thinking on some, perhaps most issues, doesn’t believe the EMA delivers value for money. Research they say shows that the EMA has had little if any impact on overall educational attainment. Margaret Eaton, chair of the LGA, said recently (but not in direct response to this report) that the EMA failed to tackle major drop out rates and said the billions spent on benefits for young people was “money down the drain”. She wants money redirected to local authorities funnelled into local projects to get young people into work and training.
The Reforms claims were rebutted by Fletcher who cited analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies from two years ago, which shows that with the EMA students’ A-level performance improved by about 4.5%.