15p to last until pay day

Charlotte wants to be a lawyer, but technical delays to education allowances means she is working in a supermarket to pay for her books, rent and bus fare to college

Joseph Lee

Charlotte Ball is down to her last 15 pence. Richard Webster, who lives two miles away, owns a Pounds 1.1 million house. Their lives are a world apart yet connected by the delays to the payments of the education maintenance allowance.

Mr Webster is acting chief executive of Liberata, the company that administers the Pounds 30-a-week subsistence grants to students from low-income families. Charlotte is one of those affected by the delays.

At 18, she is studying full-time for a law access course to fulfil her dream of going to university and becoming a lawyer. She also works 16 hours a week at Sainsbury's, taking home Pounds 100.

Charlotte is eking out her meagre finances by living at home in south London with her mother, who has two jobs - as a nursery nurse and at Sainsbury's - to makes ends meet. However, because Charlotte has received no maintenance payments since she applied eight weeks ago, she is struggling to pay for course materials and her Pounds 9.10-a-week bus fare to college.

The bus takes her from her home in Camberwell Green, one of Lambeth's most deprived areas, to one of its wealthiest, in Clapham. The route passes within a few hundred yards of Mr Webster's London home.

His company has the Pounds 80 million six-year contract to process payments for the 600,000 students who receive the education maintenance allowance.

According to the latest available figures, up to 360,000 students have not received a penny as a result of technical hitches that have afflicted Liberata's automated payments system.

So far, Liberata has escaped a fine - even though there is a penalty clause in its contract with the Learning and Skills Council.

Charlotte said the availability of the allowance was one of the reasons she started at college straight after GCSEs, rather than taking a year to earn some money to help pay for her studies.

"I'm furious," she said. "Nothing has been said to tell us exactly what's going on.

"We heard nothing might get paid until Christmas, but no one actually explained what was going on. There was no letter in the post to say there were these delays.

"At the moment, I can tell you, I'm down to my last 15p in the bank. I don't have a penny to live on and I don't get paid for more than two weeks. That's quite a while to wait for the money, which is why I need the EMA to keep me going.

"I use the EMA to go to and from college, for my bus pass. I use part of it for my mobile phone, and it's also for things like paper to be able to go to college and learn.

"It's not always possible to get the books I need from the library because there are 20 other students on the course, so I've got to have money for equipment and books.

"I work to help pay for the rent and stuff like that, the bills. Mum works two jobs. She's been lending me money, but she finds it hard."

Although Charlotte applied for the allowance on September 8, she says her paperwork was processed incorrectly, giving her a reference number the system could not recognise.

Now she is back at square one, waiting for a new contract to arrive so that she can start the application process all over again.

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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