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Education Maintenance Allowance

Volume 704: debated on Tuesday 28 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When they expect all further education students to receive their education maintenance allowance.

My Lords, EMA is targeted on young people from lower income households, so not all learners receive it. It has been shown to have a positive impact on both participation and attainment. Applications are ongoing throughout the year. However, there have been some regrettable delays, which the Learning and Skills Council is seeking to resolve with its contractor.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. The Government should be congratulated on this wonderful scheme, whose introduction a few months ago was welcomed on all sides of the House. Betwixt the LSC and the private company operating the scheme, something has gone sadly amiss, which has caused considerable financial difficulties for colleges, and particularly for students. Will my noble friend assure the House that the Government will ensure that the LSC fully compensates colleges for any outlay they have made on behalf of their students?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. I can reassure him that colleges have additional funds from the Discretionary Learner Support Fund which, at their discretion, they can make available to students in hardship. They are using the fund to provide interim payments to students in real need who are waiting for their education maintenance allowance. While the expectation is that learners will repay the fund once they receive their backdated EMA, this cannot be guaranteed. My department has therefore agreed with the LSC that if colleges or councils have concerns about this, or if they have insufficient funds to provide the support necessary to cover the needs of learners in hardship, they should contact the LSC immediately to access sufficient funds.

My Lords, will the Minister explain why students, teachers and parents should have confidence in the delivery of EMAs when Liberata, the company awarded the contract, has such a poor track record and was recently described by the FSA as reckless?

My Lords, I encourage parents and learners to have confidence in the EMA because we know that it delivers results. It is extremely regrettable that there have been delays in payments. I fully recognise that. However, in tackling the delays, the number of outstanding payments has in some weeks fallen from 200,000 to 40,516. I can assure the noble Baroness that the LSC is working hard to tackle the concerns that she has raised and that learners are receiving their payments as quickly as possible.

My Lords, given that at one point 250,000 students were waiting for payments, how is compensation being given in the schools where sixth formers are as entitled to EMA as those in further education colleges? As the Minister pointed out, further education colleges have hardship funds, which have been highly stretched, but what happens in the schools?

My Lords, EMA is paid to about 500,000 students every year and so, at the beginning of the academic year, all students were waiting to receive their notification of eligibility. We know that 429,622 notifications of entitlement have been sent out and, as I have said, more than 40,000 are still waiting to be processed. Of course schools need to support their students who are waiting for EMA, but they will get their backdated payments. That is very important for learners to know.

My Lords, notwithstanding the problems of the contracting organisation, am I right in thinking that the education maintenance allowance has made it possible for many children from low-income families to continue in further education? Is it not true that the more we say to encourage that happening the more likely it is to make it possible for those kids to get employment in what is likely to be a difficult time employment-wise? Should we not be shouting about the success of the allowance in order to get the message over to young people from poor families to access it?

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend. Because of the importance of the EMA in promoting increased participation, and because we have seen results, the Government have extended the role of the EMA in creating the kind of confidence in participation to which my noble friend referred. Subject to parliamentary approval, students who have received EMA from this September will be entitled to the top rate of higher education maintenance grant should they go on to higher education. That is an important continuation of that participation encouragement.

My Lords, education authorities seem to have had some difficulty in the recent past with their contractors. Will the Minister explain the reasons for that and whether anything can be done to prevent it happening in the future?

My Lords, I would wish to talk further with the noble and learned Lord about which education authorities and contractors he is referring to. I shall be happy to look into his concerns and come back to him on that.

My Lords, I am referring to the contractor involved in the age 14 SATs and the contractor involved in the case we have just been talking about.

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister a little more about the situation of EMA recipients who are attending schools. Schools, unlike colleges, do not have hardship funds, so it is then for the local authority to support young people who are suffering hardship because they have not yet received the grant. Are the Government doing enough to ensure that local authorities are being sufficiently proactive in identifying such young people and giving them support?

My Lords, the Government are clear that no learner should lose out as a result of these delays. I would never be complacent enough to stand here and say that we were doing enough; we never feel that we are doing enough. I will take back the concerns of this House to the department, and we will continue to work as hard as we can to make sure that these young people are getting what they deserve.