Fuel for enlightenment

Sally Feldman fears the loss of EMAs will leave thousands without a future

December 9, 2010

Among the hundreds of graduates gliding across the Royal Festival Hall stage last week at our conferment ceremony was one group that deserved special applause. These were students who had come to us through our foundation degrees. Some had studied at college, others at charitable institutions such as Community Music and Access to Music, which tempt talented kids into further study.

They had all achieved distinction and taken the bridging course necessary to progress to the final year of an honours degree. Most had arrived from disadvantaged backgrounds, the first in their very proud families to have even contemplated entering higher education. But in the coming years there will be fewer and fewer people like them.

It's not just the expense - though that will be a sufficient deterrent. A recent Ipsos MORI poll warned that raising higher education fees even to £7,000 a year would discourage an overwhelming 60 per cent of people from poor backgrounds from going to university.

In future, many of these competent students won't even make the entry qualifications. That's because, until now, the majority of those from low-income families have benefited from the support of education maintenance allowances (EMAs). These £30-a-week grants have persuaded about 60,000 youngsters a year to stay on at school or college, and also to work hard, since those who miss a class, are late or don't do homework lose their money for the week. Now this vital support is to be ripped away in what Polly Toynbee, in a recent article in The Guardian, referred to as "the wickedest cut".

The loss of that money will not merely deter many, if not most, pupils from staying on. It will make it impossible, since families being hit by so many benefit cuts simply won't be able to afford to keep their children in education.

At the Lifelong Learning Networks conference last month, delegates described the terrific opportunities they had been able to give to young people who would otherwise not have had a hope of a professional career. But the low-income families could take advantage of them only because of the EMAs. Not only are they to go, but these networks, established by the previous government only three years ago, have also had their funding withdrawn.

Of course, the coalition may feel that, with the compulsory education age rising to 18, pupils will no longer need any additional incentive to study. But how are poor teenagers to pay for the very basics of life, such as transport to college, lunch or learning materials? And while the government claims that its cuts are fair, the harsh reality is that it's the very poorest who will be hit hardest. Well-heeled A* school-leavers will get to university while working-class kids won't get a look-in.

That is one of the main reasons that so many schoolchildren took to the streets in the recent demonstrations against the cuts. Without the EMA, many would be denied the chance to stay on at school, let alone to go to university. No wonder Toynbee, in her powerful article, urged that we "demand back the right for everyone to have a second chance with a free Level 2 course, and give back the free Train to Gain opportunity for the low-skilled to climb the ladder out of the minimum wage".

Shamefully, both secretary of state for education Michael Gove and Prime Minister David Cameron pledged not to cut EMAs. Perhaps they are so well-educated and so well-heeled that they can't quite imagine what a savage impact a loss of £30 can have on a struggling household. Meanwhile, cuts to child benefit will mean that many well-off parents will continue to receive it, and hard-pressed single parents just above the cut-off income line will not. And everyone over 60, even those with duck houses and moats, will still get the winter fuel allowance.

One ingenious proposal to redress the balance just a little came recently from Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Arts.

"Roughly speaking, three pensioners' winter fuel allowances plus gift aiding would be equivalent to providing a teenager with a £25-a-week allowance for three 10-week terms," he explained in his blog. "So, how about a scheme ('fuel for learning') in which pensioners can opt to redirect their winter fuel allowance to providing a version of the EMA?"

Taylor proposed that the RSA could host the scheme via a website.

"The pensioner can choose simply to direct their donation to a central pot that would be distributed according to current EMA expenditure or to have a more personal relationship."

You could nominate a college, say, or a particular student.

In response to Taylor's blog, one company offered to build the website, while several other contributors sent in testimonies of how they had been helped by the grant. Some were wary of a move that smacks of Cameron's Big Society, though surely that too would be valuable, as the connection might encourage the government to weigh in to support it, thereby heralding a new form of voluntarism. People might wish to donate their child benefit, too. Or their Freedom Passes. Maybe a choice of causes could be available, rather as Waitrose offers a selection of charities for your green tokens.

The Chancellor, though, wouldn't be likely to participate since, as he has been quick to point out, he too will be hit by the child-benefit reforms - though it's hard to see how it will make much of a dent in his estimated £4 million fortune. How could he possibly identify with the thousands of people for whom £30 a week will spell the difference between the chance of a future - and the scrapheap?

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