Scrap the EMA, kick away another ladder

Josie Delves sees the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance as symptomatic of a government that has shown a distinct reluctance to invest in youth – and her generation

Research recently carried out by the Association of Colleges (AoC) suggests that just under half of England’s colleges have experienced a drop in student numbers since the government’s decision to axe the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) this time last year.

The EMA programme, which was rolled out nationally in 2004, aimed to encourage youngsters from low-income families to continue with their studies, by providing them with up to £30 a week for remaining in full-time education or training past the age of 16. By the academic year 2009/10, 47% of all 16–18 year-olds in full-time education (roughly 643,000 teenagers) received the EMA.

However, the scheme was scrapped last year after studies revealed that it was not cost-efficient: only 12% of those who received the allowance would have left education had the money not been available to them, meaning that 88% of recipients were being paid to do something they would have done anyway.

Tailoring funding: cutting costs

The coalition government replaced the EMA, therefore, with a new “learner discretionary fund”, which it says will better target those who are actually in need. Instead of the blanket provision of funds to children from low-income families (i.e. families whose total annual income does not exceed £30,810), from now on the educational institutes themselves will decide which students truly need the financial support.

This new, “efficient” system has enabled the government to cut its budget for encouraging continued education from £560m to just £180m – a reduction of two-thirds.

On the surface, this restructuring of spending is both necessary and sensible: in the current, tough economic climate it simply doesn’t make sense to spend so indiscriminately.

Cost-benefit analysis

However, as the report carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2009 shows, the “deadweight” cost of the EMA was “completely offset” by its benefits. As shown in the Youth Cohort Study, the EMA had tangible positive results, particularly with regards to the help it offered otherwise disadvantaged groups, such as children from single-parent households, those from minority ethnic groups, and those whose own parents have a low level of education.

Furthermore, the positive effects of the EMA were not limited to encouraging teens to stay in education: even those who would have continued to study with or without the weekly stipend registered a marked improvement in attendance, and therefore attainment, as a result of not having to work part-time.

Andy Burnham, Labour MP and shadow education secretary at the time that the new policy initiative was announced, stated that “instead of investing in our young people to help them get on in life, the government has chosen to kick away the ladder”.

Barriers to social mobility

The government’s decision to axe the EMA is but part of a larger policy shift away from creating opportunities for the young. In an environment where students are already facing fees of £9000 a year to go to university, the cutting of the EMA is perhaps unsurprising.

However, the risk it poses to social mobility is very real. The scrapping of the EMA, combined with cuts to Local Authorities’ budgets and the resultant decrease in travel subsidies, has created an insurmountable social barrier for many, particularly those who live in rural areas.

Without the money necessary to travel to all but the closest of educational institutions, the young are being deprived of choice. And without choice, many young people will become disengaged, and opt out of education.

The Chief Executive of the children’s charity, Barnado’s, has labelled the discontinuation of the EMA a “disastrous step backwards”. Describing the budget for the new “learner discretionary fund” as “pitifully low”, Barnado’s has called for an independent body to be established to assess the financial hardships suffered by 16–19 year olds in education and training.

While the new government scheme will provide those on the margins of society with specific financial assistance, such as providing 12,000 students (those in care, care-leavers and those receiving income support) with an annual bursary of £1200 if they remain in education, it has arguably left many others with no support whatsoever.


The survey carried out by the AoC of 182 colleges nationwide revealed that 22% of colleges had experienced a drop in student numbers of more than 10% in comparison to last year. This is the first time that enrolment figures have dropped since 1999. Although only a fifth of the colleges questioned attributed the decrease in students to the government’s decision to scrap the EMA, government cut backs across the board – along with a sense that continued education will not provide adequate job opportunities in any case – have undoubtedly contributed to the drop in numbers.

There is a sense among the young people of this country that the government is abandoning them, a sentiment voiced by many during the riots in London this summer.

Without the financial assistance offered by the EMA, the costs incurred by continuing to study past the age of 16 will act as a deterrent to further study. If you add to this the enormous amounts of debt students are expected to take on to enter university, it seems that instead of encouraging students to take advantage of the educational system we have in this country, young people are being sent the message that education is a luxury, rather than a necessity.

Investment in youth, and the future

Government cuts are essential if national debt is to be brought back under control, but the decision to cut funding to young people who are most in need could have potentially disastrous results. In economically tough times like these, competition for jobs is extremely high. Removing funding from those from low-income backgrounds will only work to reinforce the barriers to social mobility that are already so strong.

The EMA may not have been the perfect system. It was open to abuse, and sometimes ended up in the hands of those who weren’t needy at all. It also developed a reputation for being spent all too frequently on clothes and alcohol rather than on transport or schoolbooks as intended. However, what the EMA did represent was government investment in the young, and in our nation’s future.

The government’s decision to axe the EMA represents a wider failure to realise the importance of supporting the young. After all, it is the young who will eventually have to pick up the slack for the excessive consumption of previous generations, and if they are not adequately trained or educated enough to do so, the country will end up in an even deeper mess than it is in already.