Think again on EMA: poorer students need it

By Dan Howells

1 January saw the closing of new applications for the education maintenance allowance. So what impact has EMA had, and what will be the impact of removing or replacing the scheme with a more “targeted approach”?

First, a few uncomfortable facts.

Only one in twelve of the poorest children lived with a degree-educated parent at nine months, compared with one in five of the richest children (Waldfogel and Washbrook, 2010).

In 2008, 55% of secondary schools in the 10% most deprived parts of England failed to achieve 30% of children getting five good GCSEs including English and maths. This is compared 3% cent in the 10% of least deprived areas.

According to the office of fair access (2010) “Bright children from the poorest homes are 7 times less likely to go to top universities than their wealthier peers”.

Just 16% of students at Russell group universities are from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Compare this to 100 elite schools accounting for one third of admissions to Oxford or Cambridge during the last five years.

Leon Feinstein and others in their paper for the institute of education, “Reducing Inequalities; Realising the Talents of All” wrote:

“the fact that family background is still such a strong determinant of a child’s outcomes is an affront to a civilised, progressive society. Being angry is not enough. We need to get beyond that emotion to understand the often subtle ways in which different factors operate to advantage some children and disadvantage others”.

So what action are Messrs Gove and Cameron and this Conservative-led government taking to address this problem? Building schools for the future has been cast aside. The Browne review has come and gone with much of its recommendations forming part of the bill that was successfully voted through Parliament. And, of course, we have the scrapping of EMA.

Around 647,000 of England’s 16 to 18-year-olds receive the educational maintenance allowance, which was introduced in 2004. Through the allowance, teenagers receive £30 a week if their household income is below £20,817, £20 a week between £20,818 and £25,521, or £10 a week between £25,522 and £30,810. The money is intended for use on books, course equipment and travelling to school or college, and is stopped if students do not work hard or attend classes regularly. The payments continue if the recipient chooses to supplement the allowance with money from part time work.

EMA is not perfect; we have all heard stories similar to that of a student who revealed her circumstances on the Guardian website recently. Her parents divorced, therefore lowering her household income, which made her eligible for EMA. This was despite her still being financially supported, but not living with, her father, who earns over £100,000.

Despite EMA’s imperfections, it still defies comprehension that this Conservative-led government is removing it.

The government has said that EMA costs more than £560m a year and made little difference to most teenagers, describing it is an “expensive programme that only increased the participation in education of a minority of students”. To support this view they have cited a study commissioned by the previous government showing that almost 90% of young people receiving EMA said they would still have participated in the courses they were doing had they not received it; a statistic that was repeated by Mr Cameron during prime minister’s questions on 15 December. These findings are consistent with those of a recent report by the institute for fiscal studies. The IFS found that 65 out of every 69 individuals aged 16 who are eligible for the EMA would have stayed in education without the payment.

But does this mean that the money spent on EMA has been wasted?
No, it doesn’t. If continued participation in higher education were the sole outcome that EMA were intended to achieve, then the government would be correct. But EMA has other benefits.

It provides a financial incentive for students from low income backgrounds to turn up and apply themselves to their school or college courses. It also allows students from lower income households to have more study time by reducing the pressure to have a part time job.  Any teacher will tell you that increased attendance supported by further study at home leads to improved academic attainment.

This really is not a complicated formula, and is supported by IFS researchers who found that in areas where EMA was available, students as a whole were around 2 percentage points more likely to reach the thresholds for levels 2 and 3 of the national qualifications framework. They also had A level grades on average around 4 points higher (on the UCAS tariff).

Even if we were to take the benefits of increased participation in higher education alone, the IFS has concluded that “the costs of providing EMA were likely to be exceeded in the long run by the higher wages that its recipients would go on to enjoy in future”.

If this government really wishes to back up its rhetoric, smash through the tragic statistics and actively promote social mobility, it should think again about EMA.

Dan Howells works for an NGO promoting educational equity. He writes in a personal capacity.


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2 Responses to “Think again on EMA: poorer students need it”

  1. The Beveridge report in 1942 outlined five ‘Giant Evils’: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. The real enemy of social mobility- as the Beveridge report alludes to- is aspiration, EMA promoted idleness the detestable enemy of aspiration.

    Mr.Howells I believe cutting EMA is one of the coalition government’s best polices (maybe the only good policy). Your article reflects a middle-class neo-liberal approach to social mobility, which although sincere, reflects little of reality.

    In reality the majority of students who received EMA either spent it on driving lessons, video games or other non-educational related activities. Unfortunately, I only have anecdotal evidence to support my argument; I left a secondary comprehensive school around three years ago so I have had firsthand experience of EMA. What is more, upon visiting my mother- who works in further education- in her work place I have noticed the same trends. For those students on EMA they quickly forgot the association of the abbreviation ‘EMA’ with ‘Educational Maintenance Allowance’, rather it becomes a SALARY of £10, £20, £30 a week for the students. Bourne out of this free hand out emerged a sense of entitlement, so sickly this sense of entitlement was that parents or students would demand “their money”.

    The idea that we need a financial incentive to get students from a low income background to receive FREE education is outstanding. If a citizen from a developing country was to hear of such ludicrousness he would surely be overwhelmed by the extreme, and unnecessary, measures the Labour government went to promote further education. In short, in some countries FREE further education is a dream, in Britain we were paying students to go to sixth form or college. I must concede that Mr.Howell is right, in that EMA does attract students to further education. However, this attraction relies on one ghastly thing; the worship of money. Forget education for education’s sake, forget getting a good job and future. No, what Mr.Howells supports is a quick monetary fix.

    Mr.Howell states “This really is not a complicated formula, and is supported by IFS researchers who found that in areas where EMA was available, students as a whole were around 2 percentage points more likely to reach the thresholds for levels 2 and 3 of the national qualifications framework. They also had A level grades on average around 4 points higher (on the UCAS tariff).” I am not familiar with the ‘national qualification framework’, therefore I shall not discuss it. However, having ‘A-level grades on average around 4 points higher’ is not an achievement at all, in real terms 4 UCAS points will not get you anywhere; an A gives you 120 points an E gives you 40 points- 4 points makes no difference.

    On a paersonal note, I was entitled to £10 a week, but instead of filling out all the paper work and bureaucratic nonsense needed for EMA I decided to get a part-time job to support my studies and other activities. I used my brain and decided to limit the number of hours I worked, and when exams approached I decided to suspend my part-time job. When I discuss EMA with my friends, who received the maximum amount, they too agree with me that £30 is an extraordinary sum of money to pay a student to carry out further education. However, they, rightfully some may say, took the money- I cannot blame them for that, but the Labour government was certainly to blame for encouraging idleness. Further, note that many students, who I knew were entitled to, and took EMA, also had a part-time job.

    Of course there are extreme examples of students who really cannot afford to either travel, or pay for the equipment needed for their further education. I maintain that there should be money available for these people, however the tests or paper work required to receive this EMA money- £10 a week seems adequate- should be laborious in an attempt to discourage those who do not really need EMA.

  2. Chloe says:

    The fact that financial incentives are given to low-income families for education, gives you an indication that education is not free.

    You may have been able to get a part-time job; however, not everyone is as lucky. Our college encourages everyone to ‘hold’ off from jobs, or at least do no more than 8 hours a week; otherwise it actually affects the grades you achieve. I work both Saturday and Sunday’s at 16 hours per week, and still receive the full 30 pound EMA and I often find it difficult to eat at college. I’m willing to bet that because of your part-time job, you did not get the best grades you could have possibly achieved.

    The sad fact is, you’ll never know!

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