In 1999, my good friend David Blunkett then Secretary of State for Education -launched a scheme in some areas of the country to see if providing a weekly allowance to some 16-18 year olds would increase the number of children who stayed on in full-time education. From an initial fifteen, the scheme was expanded to another forty-one areas in 2000.
Parents, young people and teachers in the pilot areas were all really positive about these new Education Maintenance Allowances (EMAs). Not only did more young people stay on in education, but the research showed strong evidence that the 'something for something' approach was having a positive effect in encouraging extra effort by students. This was because the allowance was only paid weekly and it depended on good attendance and hard work.
As a result of this success, EMAs were introduced nationally. This year, EMAs are paid at the rate of £30 per week if the household income is less than £20, 817 per annum (£20 if less than £25,521 and £10 if less than £30,810). More than 5800 young people in Sheffield currently receive EMA.
The impact has been significant. Not only have we seen more young people staying on in education, but we’ve also seen significant improvements in academic success. It has meant that children from households with below average incomes have been more ambitious about realising their educational potential.
It has also contributed to the significant increase in the number of young people, from households with no experience of post-16 education, going on to further education. In my constituency, there has been a near 60% increase in young people going on to university in the last 10 years. In David Blunkett’s constituency, the increase has been a massive 160% increase.
When the coalition government education secretary, Michael Gove, was interviewed before the general election, he flatly denied that the EMA was for the chop, saying: "Ed Balls keeps saying that we are committed to scrapping the EMA. I have never said this. We won't."
But, on January 1st, he announced that the scheme had closed to new applicants. Those young people who currently receive an EMA will continue to receive it until the end of the academic year. But then it stops… dead. Those in the first year of their A levels will not get it in the second year.
It gives me no joy to point out that, like student tuition fees, this is just another broken promise. The real losers are ordinary young people and ordinary households throughout our area. In the long-term, our economy will also be damaged.
For those with the biggest challenges in life, EMA has been proven to boost attainment and help them succeed. The loss of EMA coupled with £9000 a year tuition fees means that students from ordinary families will be left thinking that post-16 education isn’t for them, and that thousands of our young people may fail to reach their full potential.
Isn’t there something quite daft about a policy which discourages young people from staying on in education and gaining more skills at the same time as unemployment is set to rise?