Friday, December 17, 2010

Lessons We Can Learn for England's Student Activists:
Students in England Fight to Save EMA (Educational Maintenance Allowance)

Student allowance helps only a minority, says government

• EMA scheme dismissed as expensive and ineffective
• Thousands of teenagers protest over proposed cuts
'It keeps us in college': Westminster Kingsway students discuss the EMA Link to this video The government today dismissed a grant that helps hundreds of thousands of teenagers to stay in education as "an expensive programme that only helps a minority".

The dismissal came as thousands of teenagers, college lecturers and teachers took to the streets in a last-ditch effort to convince ministers to reinstate the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

Almost 647,000 of England's 16 to 18-year-olds receive the allowance, which was introduced in 2004. It is to be stopped next summer, with new applications refused from the new year.

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.

Lunchtime marches are thought to have taken place outside more than 100 colleges today in protest at plans to cut EMA. Chris Morecroft, president of the Association of Colleges, which represents more than 350 further education and sixth-form colleges, and Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, said ministers were inflicting hardship on the poorest teenagers and "narrowing their choices". They expressed concern that new applications for the grant would be stopped from December "before the government has an alternative in place".

In a briefing document sent to the press, the government said EMA cost more than £560m a year and made little difference to most teenagers. It had done nothing to change the number of pupils on free school meals going on to Oxbridge, the document from the Department for Education said.

"Of a cohort of 80,000 pupils on free school meals, just 40 make it to Oxbridge. This is less than some top public schools. This number has actually gone down," a spokesman said.

"The shocking state of the public finances left by Labour has meant we've had to make some tough decisions. Having looked at all the facts, it was decided at the time of the spending review that the EMA scheme had to be replaced. It is an expensive programme that only increased the participation in education of a minority of students."

Research shows finance "only stops" 4% of teenagers from doing what they want to do after leaving school, the briefing note said. It 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.

"Of course some young people need extra financial assistance to help them stay on in education, but we will be targeting support at those students who really need it to continue in education and face genuine financial barriers to participation," the spokesman said. A scheme to give £26m to the poorest teenagers through their schools, colleges and training schemes would be expanded, he added.

Marches took place across the country, including in Blackpool, Dudley, Bath, Hackney and Shrewsbury. The Education Activist Network called for a demonstration outside the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

The principal of City of Bath college, Matt Atkinson, joined his students for their demonstration. "This issue is so significant I felt I should add my support," he said.

"I think the government's stance on this is very shortsighted. They have a policy of increasing participation in post-16 education, but making these cuts is going to dissuade young people, not encourage them."

Atkinson said 45% of students at his college received EMA. "A lot of our students come from rural areas and use EMA to pay their bus fares. Many young people just won't afford to come to further education colleges. Thirty pounds to a low-income household is important."

If EMA went, some students would stop two-year courses halfway through and many who might have started in the autumn would not do so, he said.

"A lot of students will have started in September expecting to receive EMA for the duration of the course. If the payments are being withdrawn in July, they will really have to think about whether they can continue," Atkinson said.

Holly Hazell, a 16-year-old art student, said EMA was crucial to her. She does not live at home and is on income support. She walks 50 minutes to college because she cannot afford the bus fare and uses the grant to live on and to buy art materials she needs for her course.

"I'd have to think about giving up if EMA went," she said. "I don't want to, but that could be the reality."

In Shrewsbury, school students received messages of support from staff as protest meetings were held after morning classes. Martin Ward, from Shrewsbury sixth form college, said 450 students – a third of the total – received EMA to help with books, equipment and travel, and its loss would have an impact. Greg Molan, principal of Shrewsbury college, emailed his students supporting responsible participation in the national action.

James Mills, head of the Save EMA campaign, said all the protests had been peaceful.

Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, joined a march in Hackney, while other people showed their support on Twitter. "I wouldn't have made it to @Cambridge_Uni without my £30 Education Maintenance Allowance," said Tom Chigbo, from Stratford, east London.

Michael Gove, the education secretary, will be questioned over the decision to scrap EMA on Wednesday when he faces MPs on the cross-party Commons education select committee.

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