From education to employment

Horses For Courses – Part One of the EMA Assessment

The Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has proved a great success, but is it being asked to do too much?

The EMA seems like a bold policy. Derided as a “bribe” by some, hailed as a social revolution by others, it is anything but uncontroversial. It provides post-16 learners with payments of up to £30 a week, and in the government’s words is designed: “to give young people from lower income households the financial support they need to remain in education”.

Britain has one of the lowest rates of participation in post-16 education in Europe, and a report just published by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) appears to show that the EMA is an effective way of reversing this trend. There are now at least 300,000 young Britons receiving the allowance at an annual cost to the taxpayer of around £400 million, and as the scheme is extended over the next two years this figure will rise substantially.

To understand why the government is prepared to spend this kind of money the EMA has to be placed in the wider context of New Labour policy. The programme is administered by the DfES but it is ultimately Treasury driven, and whatever its social benefits, the real motivation behind it is economic. In the greater scheme of things, the EMA is just one component of Gordon Brown’s strategy to equip the British economy for future competition with emerging nations like China and India.

A NEET Solution

The EMA is actually one half of a two pronged approach aimed at young learners whose families earn less than £30,000 a year. The allowance is paid directly into the learner’s bank account and is unaffected by earnings from part-time jobs. Tax and benefit credits, paid to the learner’s parents, bring the real financial benefits up to a possible £75 a week. By providing an incentive for both parents and teenagers, the EMA and Child Credits help to create an atmosphere where continuing in education is a positive, realistic and advantageous choice.

Such measures are needed because a disproportionately high number of 16-18 year olds in Britain are classified as Not Engaged in Education or Training (NEET). Many young people leave school and go straight into unskilled jobs, and a pilot programme run from 1999 onwards showed that the EMA successfully encouraged some of them to stay on in education instead. It was most effective among urban males from families in the lowest socio-economic strata, a group previously identified as the most likely to drop out at 16.

The Association of Colleges (AoC) has welcomed the introduction of the EMA, and head teachers, MPs, parents, and learners have also heavily praised it. One Connexions worker in East London describes it as simply “the best thing that’s ever happened.” Some initial problems with delivery appear to have been ironed out, and as another academic year begins it continues to make a huge impact on young people’s lives. But amid all this positive feedback, is the EMA actually being asked to achieve too much?

Participation Nation

The DfES report on the EMA pilot programme judges the success of the allowance not on the benefits it brings to individuals, but on its capacity to raise participation and retention levels nationally. This makes the programme reliant on its own statistical performance, and there is every indication that this performance has its limits. It is unlikely, for example, that the EMA will ever produce full participation in post-16 education and training in the UK.

Nevertheless, when Gordon Brown referred to it in a pre-budget statement earlier this year, he associated it with just such a goal: “Universal education from five to 11 was achieved in 1893; from five to 14 in 1918; from five to 15 in 1947; and from five to 16 in 1972. But for 30 years, as the world has moved on, the span and reach of education in Britain have remained the same. With global competition, it is essential – and with the financial support we are now prepared to offer, our goal should now be – that children not only start education at three, but continue in education or training, part-time or full-time, until 18.”

Tony Blair also expressed a desire for full participation until 18 when questioned by a select committee in February. He cited the EMA as evidence that his government was working towards that goal, but was even less clear about when and how it might be reached: “I think this is an achievable goal to say that every young person should either be in training or in a recognised apprenticeship or at college or university between the ages of 16 and 19,” he said. “If we were able to do that as a country it would be a huge step forward.”

If one were to look carefully at their words, neither Prime Minister nor Chancellor is saying that full participation “will” happen, only that it “would”, “should” and ““ ultimately – “could”. The EMA on its own cannot achieve that goal, something they both know only too well, because in other countries full participation from 16-18 has only been achieved by changing the law.

The real reason so many 16-18 year olds are NEET in Britain is that there is an extremely active youth labour market here. The Labour government has chosen not to legislate against this, and when challenged about the problem is able to point to the EMA as evidence that it is doing something about it. The interesting question is, if the government genuinely do want full participation, why won”t they change the law to achieve it?

Come back to FE News tomorrow for the next instalment on the EMA.

Joe Paget

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