From education to employment

Horses For Courses – Part Two 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”.

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.

Skills N” Thrills

“If Britain is to prosper in the future, it is essential that we have a skilled workforce capable of sustaining a knowledge-based economy”. Time and time again the government hammers home this point. During a Radio 4 interview last week, Bill Rammell warned that Britain risks being “blown away” by emerging economies if it fails to upskill; according to Tony Blair, when he said “education, education, education”, what he really meant was “skills, skills, skills”.

The fervour with which the message is delivered borders on the Messianic, and yet it seems that not everyone is listening. Expensive quangos that appear to do very little and made-up buzzwords like “upskilling” are enough to make the usual suspects sceptical about skills. But in fact, the people who have dragged their heels most over the issue are the very people who are meant to benefit. A recalcitrant British industry has so far proved unwilling to fully embrace the skills agenda, and the government badly needs to get it on board if the policy is to succeed.

British industry’s attitude to training is part of the bind New Labour find themselves in over skills. They are planning for the economy of the future; industry is operating in the economy of today. At the moment that economy is doing very well, and one of the reasons for this is that industry can take advantage of unskilled, low-paid employees produced by a deregulated, de-unionised labour market. Every year 150,000 unskilled 16 and 17 year olds (who can be paid the lowest minimum wage) enter this labour market, and at the moment industry would like to keep it that way.

New Labour Market

Full participation in education or training, on a full or part time basis, would bring the UK in line with other countries that have long had such a policy in place; a good example of one of these is France. Yet despite its trained, educated and qualified population, France’s economy is currently performing badly. In Germany, the situation is very similar.

Looking to their profit margins at the end of the next financial year, and not at a threat that looms far away into the future, British industry’s current attitude is “if it aint broke, don”t fix it.” As a business-friendly government, New Labour can only coax and cajole them over skills, not dictate by legislating against the UK’s active – and exploitative – youth labour market.

Mike Tomlinson, former Chief Inspector of Schools and author of the Tomlinson Report, is one of the many voices in favour of regulation. “If you ask me personally,” he said in response to questions from an education and skills select committee in 2004, “I would like to see a system in which no young person was able to take up a job without the assurance of continued education and training. I do not think that serves them or the nation in the long term.”

When Tony Blair was challenged about Britain’s over-active youth labour market, he responded by saying: “You could make it illegal, but if the places were not there and the system and the infrastructure were not in place it would not really be very fair.” In reality his government is stuck in a Catch-22 situation: to really give teeth to what they say they are trying to do to guarantee our future prosperity, they need to legislate and regulate the labour market; but they can”t, because a lack of legislation and a culture of deregulation is responsible for our prosperity at the moment.

The current compromise solution is to get industry to sign up to training voluntarily by setting up Skills Academies. But if Labour really is committed to full participation in education and training up to 18, it will have to change the law. If it doesn”t, and it fails to persuade industry to regulate itself, then the entire skills agenda could be derailed. The EMA is an effective way of encouraging young people from lower income households to stay on in education, but it isnt an alternative to legislation.

Joe Paget

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