Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Last Chance for EMA

Tomorrow in the Commons, MP's will take part in opposition day debate to apply some much needed parliamentary scrutiny to the coalition decision over the EMA. The decision scrap the EMA, unlike that over tuition fees last year, does not require a parliamentary vote because it is classed as a matter of departmental spending.

This odd fact seems to run in line with the relative lack of coverage that this cut has received. Late last year it was the decision to increase tuition fees, and the student reaction, which grabbed the headlines.

In fact, there has been a sustained, articulate and peaceful campaign from students, which has been matched by a huge online campaign through #saveema and the SaveEMA website.

Research out this week from the University and College Union (UCU) with the Association of Colleges (AoC) concluded that up to 7 out of 10 students receiving the EMA would end their studies if the payments stop.

The numbers involved are relatively small -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. In its first year or testing, in Hackney in 1999, 18,000 students took advantage of the policy and it played a significant role in raising achievement.

The total cost of the EMA does add up to a weighty £500 million pull on the public purse, but the qualitative nature of the results of the EMA mean that the net effect is difficult to measure.

The political disagreement over the policy rests on the coalition suggestion that the EMA does not in fact fulfil its stated goal of encouraging people to stay on in FE, and that much of the spending is what is called “dead weight” –money spent on pupils who would have gone to university either way. The crucial flaw in this analysis, as pointed out in the Commons, is that the sample from which these conclusions were drawn consisted of 91% white middle class students; clearly not representative of the demographic that the EMA is designed to support.

Brushing off the promises he made regarding EMA during the election, David Cameron has stated that "we are not abolishing EMAs – we are replacing EMAs with something more effective.” Channel 4’s Fact Check blog on the subject revealed that the something more effective is an increase to the Discretionary Support Fund, a less transparent measure which is administered and awarded by colleges. Fact Check concluded that Discretionary Support Fund is "only awarded once students are accepted on a course. Without the promise of extra funding, some poorer students may not risk applying."

The IFS have concluded “the costs of EMA are completely offset.” Of equal significance is the previous IFS research which shows that “EMA significantly increased participation rates in post-16 education among young adults who were eligible to receive it.

What is certain is that the towering piles of competing statistical analysis which surround this decision do not adequately shine a light on the real impact on students. It should not be forgotten that these are young people for whom education is not a foregone conclusion; this fundamental and universal support gives an important safety net for those who are not sure whether to take the risk. Far from quitting education, many may never take the risk in the first place.

From a quantitative perspective the policy has other benefits which are not suitably taken into account by the analysis. “This cost-benefit calculation does not include other benefits through other routes: for example, increases in educational attainment that might arise for the EMA recipients who would have stayed in education anyway, but now have more time to devote to studying” the IFS told Faisal Islam.

The claims made by Michael Gove last month on Radio 4, that “all the academic research shows that the current support is poorly targeted” is not a fair assessment of the real situation being faced by FE learners.

On many occasions since coming to power Michael Gove has expressed very strong his ambition to bridge the achievement gap between rich and poor students, this is to be welcomed. What we need from him now is chapter and verse on how any targeted replacement to EMA will bridge the gap and what calculations and forecast have been made to back this up.

Short of a huge rebellion on the Lib Dem benches, it is likely that the EMA will come to an end tomorrow. The aspirations of some of the most deprived students in our schools must not be allowed to fall through the cracks. PEN is hopeful that the debate will provide an opportunity for some meaningful and substantial debate on what form an effective alternative provision can take.

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