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Education Maintenance Allowance

Volume 505: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2010

I am delighted to have secured the debate and to have the opportunity to exchange views with my hon. Friend the Minister. I look forward to hearing his comments on the wider issues that I shall raise. I would like to discuss the future of the education maintenance allowance scheme and the effects of cuts on the young people who rely on it. I will mention the fears of charities and other non-governmental organisations that represent further education students, and tell the Minister my experience of what has happened in relation to cuts made to the EMA north of the border. That is an example to keep in mind of what could happen.

The Government have a record second to none on funding further education. For those listening today who are unaware of EMAs, let me give a brief explanation of what they are and why they are such an essential part of further education support. EMAs are means-tested allowances of £10, £20 and £30 a week that are paid to 16 to 19-year-olds who stay in education and come from families where the annual household income is below £30,000. The EMA payment is conditional on attendance. The policy intent of the EMA is to broaden participation and improve the retention and attainment of young people aged 16 to 19 in post-compulsory education. EMAs were introduced nationally in September 2004 to reduce this country’s post-16 drop-out rate, which was one of the worst in the developed world at that time.

What success has the EMA scheme had since 2004? Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that attainment in GCSEs and A-levels by recipients of the EMA has risen by 40 per cent. since its introduction. That figure is even greater for those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods. In addition, RCU market research services carried out research on the national scheme and published a report entitled “Evaluation of EMA National Roll-Out 2007”, which concluded

“that EMA has had a positive impact on the retention, achievement and success of certain groups of learners…traditionally associated with lower levels of achievement such as: male learners; learners from minority ethnic groups; those with backgrounds of high deprivation and learners on lower level and vocational courses.”

Ipsos MORI published a report in 2008 entitled, “Evaluation of Extension of EMA to Entry to Employment and Programme Led Apprenticeships”, which reached similar conclusions to the RCU research. It stated that the EMA has reduced the number of NEETs—those not in education, employment or training—and has

“motivated learners to…work harder.”

So, as hon. Members can see, the scheme has been widely recognised by independent authorities as a success, and the arguments by those opposed to the scheme are easily silenced.

It was with mixed emotions that I welcomed last week’s statement by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, in which he announced plans to spend £580 million on the EMA in order to fund a further 80,000 places, because he also mentioned that, from 2011, poorer pupils who qualify for the EMA—a payment of £10 to £30 each week, as I said—will no longer receive an extra £100 for every six months they stay in education.

Charities and organisations that represent young people receiving the EMA are extremely concerned about recent announcements to scrap the £100 bonuses, particularly when the evaluation evidence for the bonus scheme found that around two thirds of EMA recipients who were questioned agreed that the bonus system made them work harder. The same proportion said that they attended more lessons because of the EMA attendance bonus rule. Furthermore, those who work closely with students on the EMA inform me that payments and bonuses are an important part of what allows them to continue in further education. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that matter.

Unfortunately that is not the only fear regarding EMAs. There is a growing fear among all those interested in the subject that when the school leaving age is raised to 18 in 2015, the need for an incentive will become redundant. Will the Minister also comment on that and say whether it is to do with the problem that the EMA is classed as an incentive rather than a welfare payment, because receipt of an EMA does not affect other family benefits? The Government should consider reclassifying EMAs as payments that are intended to be supportive, rather than solely an incentive, so they can be viewed in the same way as jobseeker’s allowance. Otherwise, when the school leaving age is raised to 18 in 2015, EMAs will become defunct as an incentive.

My hon. Friend should consider, for example, those who are living independently at an early age, as they may need particular support. Access to financial support may be one of the main barriers to participation in education. In general, some of the key barriers include course fees, travel expenses, the cost of food and other essential items, and costs associated with a course or placement, such as equipment. There is a lack of comprehensive advice and guidance for young people on their entitlement to benefits. For those living with families on low incomes, the overall impact on family finances should be considered. In some instances, young people have been discouraged from taking part in education. That is why I believe that the EMA should be guaranteed beyond 2011.

Let me give a Scottish example. I am aware that we live in a time when finances are tight and budgets must be pruned, but I believe there is a good example showing why such action should not be taken on EMAs. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the EMA system is devolved and each Administration have their own policy responsibility for it. However, not all Administrations have been as considerate as this one in protecting students who come from low-income families during the recession. For example, this academic year, in my constituency of Glasgow, North-West, the EMA has been cut by 20 per cent. My MSP colleague, Bill Butler, has informed me of the upsurge in constituents who are worse off because the Scottish National party-led Administration have cut the EMA budget by 20 per cent. and there have been changes to the scheme’s eligibility criteria which lowered the threshold for the £30 payment and axed the £10 and £20 payments.

Those £10 and £20 payments may seem insignificant to some in the House, but a survey carried out by the National Union of Students in 2008 found that 65 per cent. of participants on the highest EMA rate of £30 stated that they could not continue to study without the EMA. As already stated, the maintenance allowance removes some of the barriers to participation in education, and the £10 and £20 brackets are useful in that case, particularly for covering costs towards transport, food and many other things.

Furthermore, unfortunately there are fears that the progress made will be undone by the SNP Administration enforcing changes to the eligibility criteria. That will cut support for those receiving £10 and £20, and cut the allowance to families with an income of between £20,351 and £22,403 with a child, who currently receive the maximum £30. Figures released by the Scottish Government last Wednesday on the EMA show that the old system developed under Labour was successful, with 39,110 college students and school pupils from low-income families taking up the allowance in 2007-08, which means the figure has increased from 38,760.

The figures also show that the allowance helped school pupils from low-income families stay on in education, with 77 per cent. of school pupils on the EMA scheme for a full year completing the attendance rates and learning expectations set out for them, compared with 70 per cent. in 2006-07. The proportion of those receiving £10 and £20 payments who completed the scheme increased to 82 per cent.—the figures for 2006-07 were 74 per cent. for those on £10 payments and 73 per cent. for those on £20 payments. I know that the Minister has no responsibility for the administration of the EMA in Scotland, but the figures show what could happen if support is removed from students on the EMA. That view is supported by NUS Scotland, which believes that those cuts to the EMA scheme by the SNP Administration will lead to almost 8,000 students dropping out this year.

What are the views of other parties on the EMA? We know where the SNP stands on it, as I have just said. The views of their Westminster friends, the Conservatives, are not dissimilar. The Leader of the Opposition has previously refused to give a straight answer on the EMA, notably during a Sky interview in 2007. Things looked briefly hopeful two weeks ago when he was pushed to answer on whether he was committed to the EMA and responded that he was. However, it did not take long for that to change: only last week, I am informed, when the shadow Minister responsible for the matter, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), was asked about it by the NUS’s Shane Chowen at an event on further education, he responded that it was

“difficult to commit to it in the current climate.”

I guess that should come as no surprise, as previously the Conservative party and those on the right have held a highly negative view of the EMA.

Only last year in the House, the shadow schools Minister, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), described the EMA as a “fiasco”. The shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has described it as doing

“absolutely nothing to help solve this country’s chronic skills shortages.”

Furthermore, the shadow Children, Schools and Families Secretary, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), has even called the EMA a “flop”. If they had done their homework, they would have known about its success.

It is also important to mention the views of those who influence the policy of Opposition parties. Right-wing think-tanks have been even more disparaging about the EMA in the past year. Policy Exchange, a favourite think-tank of the Leader of the Opposition, called for the EMA to be axed in its publication “Schools Funding and Social Justice”. There is not much justice for students there. Reform, another favourite of the Conservative Front Bench, advocates scrapping the scheme, telling The Guardian last year that

“this is not an effective way of spending over half a billion pounds of education budget.”

Perhaps if it asked the students who receive EMAs and their parents it would get a different answer. Two other influential groups on the right, the Institute of Directors and the TaxPayers’ Alliance, called for the EMA to be axed late last year in their joint document “How to save £50 billion”.

If we want a better barometer for the feelings of Opposition parties, we should look at their lack of support for my early-day motion 422. More than 80 Members have signed that early-day motion, but only one Conservative and three Liberals are among them. I wonder which party really cares about the education of young people.

In conclusion, I have to ask some questions of all those connected with the EMA—I know that the Minister cannot answer for Opposition parties, but hopefully when their spokespeople read the debate they will write to me with their answers. Why would Opposition parties want to stop people from low-income families staying in education? What are their real motives and plans for the EMA? Why can they not commit to the EMA scheme? No ifs, no buts, just commit to it. What will the Minister do to take into consideration the concerns of those student leaders worried about the financial loss that will be incurred by the removal of the bonuses in 2011? Does he agree with me that, because of the EMA’s importance to students from low-income families, it should be supported beyond 2011? I look forward to hearing from him and to the correspondence from Opposition leaders.

May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Lady Winterton? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) on securing the debate—I hope that his cough gets better soon. He has hit the nail on the head in the debate, as the education maintenance allowance is an important and often overlooked aspect of education policy.

I would hardly accuse my hon. Friend of overlooking the issue, though; he is renowned in the House and elsewhere for his passion for social justice, and he has been incredibly energetic in campaigning in support of EMA, both in the House and elsewhere. He referred in his excellent speech to his early-day motion 422, which has been signed by more than 80 hon. Members. I would like to pay tribute to his work on that matter.

I think that my hon. Friend would agree that we all want young people in this country to be able to go on to further education, regardless of where they live, their background or their family income. There is, and has been for many decades, a direct correlation between household income and participation rates in education and training post-16. Those from low and middle-income households have often been deterred from going on to college because they simply could not afford it. They could not afford to pay for things such as equipment or transport, and EMA has helped to start to break that link. It is clear, therefore, that EMA has had a huge—arguably unprecedented—impact on students of this country, with regard to participation and attainment.

We know that EMA works. It was subject to one of the most extensive and robust evaluations of any education initiative ever undertaken in England. The allowances have helped raise participation, retention and attainment of qualifications among young people, particularly from lower-income households. Evaluation from the pilots found that EMA was successful in raising participation by about 4 per cent., and attainment by between 2 and 2.5 per cent. Since the EMA pilots, participation in full-time education has risen markedly year on year for 16 to 17-year-olds.

It is fair to say that we have to look at other forces that might also be at work in that regard; it is difficult to pinpoint a specific policy and say, “That is the reason for increased participation.” However, it is true that EMA was the largest single policy initiative specifically designed to raise post-16 participation in that period, and it has been hugely significant in allowing young people to gain the skills that they need. It remains an important and necessary part of the offer that we provide to young people.

About 45 per cent. of 16 to 18-year-old learners in full-time education currently receive EMA. As of the week beginning 18 January last month, almost 600,000 young people had received an EMA payment. That is almost 80,000 more than at the same time last year. That huge increase will have a positive impact on skills levels for people in this country for decades to come.

I could talk about hundreds of thousands of people and the billions of pounds that we have invested in learning for 16 to 18-year-olds, but it actually comes down to individual lives and individual young people being given opportunities. One example that sticks in my mind is that of a young man named Jordan, a catering student from Bolton, who now works for one of Britain’s most renowned seafood chefs. On receiving his EMA, he said:

“This is a dream come true for me. Receiving EMA made a big difference and helped to pay for my college trips and cookery equipment.”

There are hundreds of thousands of people like Jordan across the country who could testify in the same way.

That is a good example. Would my hon. Friend agree with me that that money also gives stability to people who perhaps did not attend school regularly? The small incentive that they receive for attending further education puts them in good stead for the future. They will, in effect, have been to work in further education and will have that background when they go into employment in future.

I will answer that in two ways. First, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend; he also touched on the point in his speech. EMA is not a handout, as it offers something for something. There are recognised and agreed standards for behaviour, attendance and punctuality, which are all important in order to receive the EMA. In modern life, business depends on that maturity, and EMA can help to inject that level of maturity for 16 to 17-year-olds. Secondly, he is absolutely right that it gives that degree of certainty, which, for those from fluctuating, low-income households, can really mean the difference between staying on in college and not going to college and ending up with lower prospects for the future.

In a nutshell, that was why we introduced an EMA guarantee. It means that learners who have had a successful household income assessment are guaranteed the same level of EMA for up to three years. As my hon. Friend said, the guarantee provides young people from lower income groups with an assurance of financial support while they undertake further education. Such an assurance can be important, because it enables young people to have certainty about what support they can receive as they progress in 16-to-19 learning.

I hope that I have made it clear that the EMA has helped more and more students to take part in further education and training. However, it was right and proper for my hon. Friend to probe and question the Government and other parties on the future of the policy, so I want to take this opportunity to outline where I see the EMA going in terms of the future of our ambitious reforms to support more students to take similar paths in their education.

Let me be frank. I do not agree with the Opposition’s policies on this matter. As my hon. Friend said, the EMA is a devolved matter. Scotland and Wales will come up with their own policies on it, but I do not agree with what is being done in Scotland. Some of the examples and illustrations that my hon. Friend gave really concern me. People from lower and middle-income households will be deprived of the chance to stay on in school, college or training from the age of 16 onwards. That is not what this Government want, and I heartily disapprove of such a policy.

I am not entirely certain about this, but I believe that the Conservatives wish to abolish the EMA. As my hon. Friend said, the shadow Minister for Schools and Learners, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), has gone on record as saying that it is a fiasco. The shadow Children, Schools and Families Secretary, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), said that it is a flop. The Leader of the Opposition, who rarely mentions 16-to-18 policy at all, stated to the Young Foundation:

“Well we’re in a state of quite severe flux on this whole area of 16 to 18 education, so I can’t give you a straight answer”

on the EMA.

We give 16-to-18 education more importance and certainty than that, so let me give my hon. Friend a straight answer: we will invest a total of £8.2 billion in 2010-11 to fund learning for an unprecedented 1.6 million young people, and we will increase funding for 16-to-19 learning by 0.9 per cent. in real terms, in both 2011-12 and 2012-13, to allow us to continue our commitment to the September guarantee, which guarantees a place in college or training for 16 to 17-year-olds. That reflects the importance that this Government attach to the whole issue of 14-to-19 education. Our ambition is for every young person aged 16 to 17 to participate in education and training, thereby building the skills and qualifications that they need to succeed.

My hon. Friend touched on another important point. I can understand the risks and concerns in respect of our historic commitment to raise the participation age, which has been talked about in this country for more than a century. We will raise it first to 17 in 2013 and then to 18 in 2015.

How will that impact on EMA? Again, my hon. Friend was right to mention this, so let me give a straight answer and be very clear. Some young people will always need support, financial or otherwise, to participate in and take advantage of the wide range of potential learning opportunities out there. Once the participation age is raised, young people will still have the option to work full time, as long as they continue to participate in learning part time. We must ensure that their learning choices are not hampered or constrained purely because of their economic or financial circumstances.

Let me be as blunt as I can in reiterating a phrase that my hon. Friend used: no ifs, no buts. We will continue the EMA when the participation age is raised. It has helped more young people than ever in the history of our country to stay on in learning, and it will continue to be important in the future. The fact is that this Government remain absolutely committed to safeguarding EMA.

My hon. Friend, whose contribution to this debate was balanced, mentioned his concern and the concern of others about the ending of bonuses as part of the EMA offer by January 2011. We will not shy away from taking tough decisions in order to support the participation of even greater numbers of young people. The savings that the ending of bonuses will produce, alongside additional investment announced in the Budget and pre-Budget report, will mean that an extra 80,000 learners will be able to claim EMA from 2010-11.

I have to be blunt with my hon. Friend: evidence has shown that the bonus payment was often viewed as some kind of reward—something that, obviously, was nice to have, but not as essential as the weekly payment for participation in learning. The weekly payment, whether £10, £20 or £30, is the key factor in allowing people to stay on in education and learning, whereas the bonus was often used for social expenditure, for buying mobile phones, iPods and so on. It was only occasionally used as a contribution to term-time costs. It is difficult to generalise, I cannot mention specific circumstances and I have had letters clearly stating that that is not the case. However, we have to look at the wider context of other offers and other help, support and assistance such as child benefit and tax credits, and at the increase in the discretionary learner support fund that we have provided to help and support young people in college who find themselves in difficult financial circumstances.

I would like to thank my hon. Friend for this opportunity to debate an important but often overlooked aspect of policy. I know that he wants to ensure that students get the support that they need to go into further education or training, without financial matters being a barrier. I am committed to ensuring that the EMA will continue to give crucial support to the students who need it the most—no ifs, no buts. I hope that I have demonstrated our clear commitment to EMA and to ensuring that people from lower and middle-income households continue to receive it. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend about the Opposition’s response.

As both the Member concerned and the Minister are here, we can start the next debate a few minutes early.