A battle for the future of educational maintenance allowances (EMAs) began this week with the publication of two reports with radically different views on the grants.
According to a report by the CfBT Education Trust, EMAs have been successful in increasing participation and achievement of 16- and 17-year- olds from the poorest homes and should therefore be maintained. EMAs are means-tested and payable on a sliding scale up to a maximum of pound;30 a week.
But a report by the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Centre for Social Justice, the think-tank established by the former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, said that EMAs have had mixed results and has called for the scheme's pound;600 million funding to be redistributed on a local basis.
Mick Fletcher, the author of the CfBT report, Should We End the Education Maintenance Allowance?, says that EMAs may present a tempting target for a future government seeking to cut public expenditure, not least because of plans to make education compulsory up to the age of 18, which would, on the face of it, make EMAs redundant as an incentive for 16- and 17-year- olds to stay in education and training.
Mr Fletcher argues that raising the compulsory leaving age makes little difference as many of the 16- and 17-year-olds receiving EMAs are those most likely to lose interest in education and, therefore, most likely to truant if the leaving age is raised. He says that unless a future government is prepared to criminalise large numbers of them, an incentive such as EMAs will still be required.
The report refers to research, by the Centre for Research in Social Policy and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), into the first two pilot years of EMAs - 19992000 and 20002001. It showed that they raised participation for 16-year-olds by 3.7 percentage points for the age group overall and by 5.9 percentage points for the group eligible for the allowances - that is from households with total income of less than pound;30,000 a year.
Mr Fletcher said that a study in 2007 by the IFS argued that the improvement in A-level performance was as much as 6 per cent for boys and 7.5 per cent for girls for those receiving an allowance. There were also significant improvements for young black and Asian people.
Speaking to FE Focus, Mr Fletcher said: "It's not a massive effect and EMAs are not a magic bullet, but nothing else has had a similarly positive effect. EMAs are also well targeted, only going to the poorest households, and are conditional in that young people have to turn up to college and hand in work to get them."
The LGA report, Hidden Talents II: Getting the Best Out of Britain's Young People, calls for a more localised and coherent approach to tackling the problem of those not in education, employment or training, although the paper rejects the term "Neet" because it "focuses on failure" and "stigmatises" young people.
It says that EMA funding would be better directed to local partnerships, involving public and voluntary organisations led by democratically accountable local government. It would decide how best to spend the money, perhaps using it to support bursaries in key subjects such as maths and science.
The report says that EMA results are mixed, with the numbers of 16-year- olds not in education or employment falling between 2004, when the EMA scheme was introduced, and 2008. The proportion of 17-year-old Neets stayed the same and the proportion of 18-year-olds in this category rose by more than 2 percentage points over the same period.
It says that EMAs also carry significant dead weight in that they give money to people who would have stayed in education beyond 16 anyway.
Paul Raynes, programme director for the LGA, said: "We do not disagree with incentives, but a blanket, national incentive such as the EMA does not work as well as it might. We need a much more targeted system and the way to get that is to have a more localised system."
Almost seven out of 10 (68 per cent) of students receiving EMAs go to further education institutions, according to the Association of Colleges, which supports the retention of EMAs.
Sheila Daley, clerk and company secretary at Westminster Kingsway College in London, said: "EMAs are definitely useful. Year after year, we have found that students receiving EMAs have better attendance because the payment of the allowances is dependent on attendance."