In the ten years since it was first piloted, and particularly more recently, the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has come in for a great deal of criticism. It has been referred to as a "deadweight" expense and a "flop"; and with a short-term future of austerity in public spending, the EMA would appear to be under threat.
Although EMAs have undoubtedly had an impact on participation, some have begun to argue that there are other, more cost-effective means available to achieve the same end. Others suggest that the decision to raise the age of compulsory participation in learning (or RPA) to the 18th birthday by 2015 makes an incentive to stay on redundant.
In my study, published by the CfBT Education Trust, I have gathered evidence of the impact of EMAs so far, and put the allowance in the context of the complex system of financial support for young people participating in education and training between the ages of 16 and 19, and support for their families more generally.
EMAs have been a successful innovation and should be maintained. There is robust evidence that EMAs have increased participation and achievement among 16 and 17 year olds and contributed to improved motivation and performance. EMAs are restricted to low-income households, and disproportionately taken up by those with low achievement levels at school, those from ethnic minorities and those from single-parent families.
Arguments about the relevance of an incentive if the leaving age is changed are a distraction. No serious commentator 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. In any event both major opposition parties are opposed to the use of compulsion.
The fall in participation between 16 and 17 remains the major problem confronting the aspiration to increase participation towards 100% by 2015. With the evidence in favour of what the EMA can achieve – as well as evaluations which shows that the efficacy of the allowance is linked to its rate – there should be an increase in the EMA. Just to keep pace with inflation would require an increase from £30 to £40 per week.
EMAs should be maintained despite the current crisis in public finances. There are other less well focused policies that cost a similar or greater amount. If Child Benefit for 16–19s were means-tested on the same scale as EMAs it would produce a saving of around £585 million – a broadly similar sum to the abolition of the allowances, though at the expense of the richest part of the population rather than the poorest. If Child Tax Credit (CTC) for 16–19 year olds were to be means-tested on the same scale as EMAs that would save a further £180 million.
Mick Fletcher is an education consultant specialising in the planning and funding of post-14 learning, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London
A copy of the report can be downloaded from the CfBT Education Trust website, www.cfbt.com