The Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham   probably  didn’t much help the case for EMAs just before the Commons debate. On the BBC  on 18 January Reeta Chakrabarti put it to him that: “…there is anecdotal evidence that sometimes EMA money isn’t just spent on books and transport but on clothes, nights out and even gym membership.”

In reply the Shadow Education Secretary let slip: “Yes, they may spend some of it on food and even the occasional time out with friends…”

The Government has argued that 88% of those currently  eligible for EMA would continue to  study  if EMA were to be removed. Some 650,000 teenagers—almost half of all youngsters in post-compulsory education—claim the allowance.  But a  survey published  on 18 January (interviewing 700 students) by the University and College Union, which represents lecturers, found that 70% of students who receive the EMA would drop out of college if it is withdrawn, and that 63% receive no help from their families to meet study costs. Some experts argue that it doesn’t really matter too much what students spend EMA on providing it keeps them engaged and attending their courses. ie  it keeps them out of the NEET category. The Institute for Fiscal Studies believes  that you should treat the so called  deadweight costs argument (students would participate in education or training even if the EMA was not available) with caution.  It thinks that  channelling £560m a year into poor families  is on balance worthwhile, calculating  that the money wasted on the 88% of recipients who would have attended college anyway was outweighed by the savings made (in welfare benefits) on the 12% who wouldn’t have.  But, and this seems to me important, the Department for Education  doesn’t know what percentage of those on EMA earn money working and doesn’t seem to have attempted to find out. “We don’t collect that information,”  a spokesman told  journalist Iain Martin recently. The department hasn’t conducted a study to try and establish even a rough estimate that might help guide policy making that should, ideally, be evidence based.  But, as  Martin points out ,the Government  hands all that money out (£560 million) to 16-18 year olds in education while having no idea if they have any income of their own. Instead the test is simply whether the parent earns less than around £20,000 (in which case the child can claim £30 a week), between £20,000 and £25,000 (£20) and £25,000-30,000 (£10). More than £30,000 and they get naught. There is surely an argument, given the straitened circumstances ,to ensure that support is better targeted and goes to those most in need.

While the opposition berate the coalition for getting rid of the EMA ,they forget to remind students that they were  planning  to get rid of the EMA as well,   once ,that is , the leaving age had been raised to 18, according to evidence given to the Education Select Committee in 2007, by the then Secretary of State, Alan Johnson


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