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Education Maintenance Allowance

Volume 489: debated on Monday 9 March 2009

4. What recent assessment he has made of progress in the delivery of the education maintenance allowance; and if he will make a statement. (261293)

Education maintenance allowance processing rates are now operating at normal levels. All applications are being processed within two weeks of receipt and, as of 27 February 2009, more than 558,000 unique learners had received an EMA payment, compared with 550,000 for the entire academic year 2007-08.

The administration of the scheme has been a nightmare for sixth-form colleges. At Scarborough sixth-form college, more than a third of the 1,100 students have applied for EMAs and there have been problems. The college has tried everything. It has brought in additional admin staff on a Tuesday, the payments day, and staff have even worked in the evenings and at night to try to get on the website. Despite that, they have had to advance over £1,000 each to 20 students, and the allowances for four students are still outstanding. May we have an apology from the Minister to the staff who have had to deal with the scheme and, more particularly, to the students from lower-income households, who are just the people whom the scheme was meant to help?

I am sure that we are all very grateful to members of staff who stayed to help those students who missed out. As I said, we are currently processing applications within two weeks of receipt and we have more or less cleared the backlog. If there are any cases that the hon. Gentleman is aware of, I will gladly look into those if there is still a problem.

Is the Minister aware that in Rotherham alone 3,040 EMAs have been awarded? Yes, there have been teething and administrative troubles, but EMAs are most welcome. Is it not the case—I am not sure whether I may say this—that the Conservatives have consistently opposed efforts to help working-class kids get higher education? They should be ashamed of themselves.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. I will use the opportunity to emphasise Labour’s commitment to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds to stay in further education. We can see that the policy has worked, because the most recent analysis has shown that EMA increased attainment at levels 2 and 3 by 2 or 3 percentage points.

EMA and adult learning grants are there to provide incentives and support to those on low incomes who wish to pursue their studies. Will the Minister therefore please explain why there is no equivalent support for young people with learning disabilities who wish to continue their studies? My 19-year-old constituent Emma Frost is studying for a level 1 qualification—[Hon. Members: “Reading!”]—and is not entitled to education maintenance allowance or adult learning vouchers—

Order. I see hon. Members getting very grumpy today, but the hon. Lady should not be reading. She has been in the House a long time now and she should not be reading a supplementary question. She did not know what the reply to the original question would be, so how can she have a prepared question?

We are committed to ensuring that all young people between the ages of 16 and 18 have the opportunity to go on to further education and get the qualifications that they can. We are certainly committed to helping young people with learning difficulties and disabilities to do that, too.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the education maintenance allowance has helped people who would otherwise not have stayed on at school and college to remain there during the current economically difficult period, and that it is important that we find ways of facilitating access to the education maintenance allowance when families suddenly lose their income and their children may be forced to leave education or college before they reach the end of their course?

I recognise the problem that my hon. Friend mentions. At present, the assessment system for the education maintenance allowance is annual, but when a particular difficulty has occurred during an educational year, we have the facility of learner support grants. We will look further into how we can use them.

Does the Minister accept that there needs to be more flexibility in the means-testing criteria? For example, the circumstances of a household on an income of £30,000 with a single child in full-time education are entirely different from those of another household on the same income but with five children in full-time education. Such issues have an impact on whether some children fulfil full-time education.

The problem is that the more flexibility we put into the system, the more complex it becomes. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but there will not always be the same number of young people in the 16-to-18 age group. It is that particular age group that we are trying to attract with the education maintenance allowance.

Some 4,000 young people in Enfield have benefited from the education maintenance allowance in the past year. That means young people staying in education and getting the qualifications that they need in both academic and vocational courses. It is interesting to note that the number of young people going to university from Enfield has doubled in the past 10 years; in recent years, the education maintenance allowance has made a significant difference. Will the Minister give a commitment that, unlike the Conservative party, we will guarantee the future of the education maintenance allowance?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. Her constituency is testament to the good work that the EMA has done in enabling young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to continue their education. I am proud to say that we are, I understand, the only party committed to continuing the education maintenance allowance.