Ministers last week trumpeted the success of the pilot scheme for educational maintenance allowances - which has operated principally in East Ayrshire. It is to be extended to the rest of Scotland by 2006. East Ayrshire, Glasgow, Dundee and West Dunbartonshire also took part - although effectiveness in these areas is said to be patchy.
Young people aged 16-19 from low income families can collect up to pound;40 a week for staying on in education and training, agreeing to high levels of attendance and signing a learning agreement.
Fred Wildridge, headteacher of Grange Academy in Kilmarnock, said the initiative was not about "handcuffing young people to education by financial bribery". It was about providing opportunities for those who would otherwise have left school.
Colin Maclean, headteacher of Auchinleck Academy, says the allowance encourages self-respect and self-reliance. "It also promotes greater commitment and application because a terminal bonus is paid for good attendance and attainment," Mr Maclean said.
An independent study by the Centre for Educational Sociology at Edinburgh University, published this week, shows that in East Ayrshire allowances have pushed up post-16 participation among low income groups from 74 per cent to 83 per cent over the three years since it began.
A similar sample of young people in North and South Lanarkshire, who did not benefit from the scheme, showed no increase, although both authorities have higher staying on rates. East Ayrshire has now closed the gap with the Lanarkshires and fewer young people leave school at Christmas and more stay on to complete S5.
Researchers say those involved already had positive attitudes to school and gaining qualifications and wanted to stay on anyway. But family circumstances might have prevented them.
"In addition to the lack of financial resources (and often both a cause and a consequence of them) these young people are coping with considerable difficulties, including parents with chronic illness or without work in a context that may offer few opportunities for change. The allowance has made a material difference," the team states.
The young people involved are not high attainers, are not persistent truants or troublemakers and are likely to achieve some qualifications. It may take longer to lift standards as young people from low income families may need to see that good qualifications lead to better prospects or to further and higher education, they say.
Findings from studies south of the border confirm the Scottish evidence of improved attendance and staying on rates but no improved exam results. The focus in East Ayrshire has been on attendance.
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