The number of senior pupils in receipt of financial support to stay on at Scottish schools has fallen by almost a fifth in 11 years, with the total spend on special allowances for teenagers from low-income families dropping by more than £9 million over the same period.
In 2006-07, 24,430 Scottish pupils from low-income families received the education maintenance allowance (EMA) – the £30 weekly payment designed to help pupils from deprived backgrounds overcome the financial barriers to staying on in school. The figure also included the small number of pupils who had left school and were on activity agreements which are aimed at young people in danger of becoming unemployed.
However, by last year the number of school pupils and those on activity agreements who were receiving the EMA – which last year amounted to an average annual payment of £839 for school pupils – had dropped to 20,030, a fall of 18 per cent.
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Meanwhile, the total spent by the Scottish government on EMAs – which are also handed out to 16- to 19-year-old college students from low-income backgrounds –has gone from £32.4 million in 2006-07 to £23 million last year, a drop of over £9 million.
Last year, school pupils received the largest share of the cash: £15.7 million or 68 per cent of total payments. College students received £6.6 million (29 per cent) and those on activity agreements got £0.7 million (3 per cent).
Commenting on the figures, education secretary John Swinney said that the decrease in numbers could be attributed to a number of contributing factors, including "a smaller population of young people; the broadening of learning and training opportunities through Developing the Young Workforce; and more attractive bursary packages available to learners in college".
He added that it was “particularly encouraging” that the proportion of EMA recipients from the 20 per cent most deprived areas had risen, from 29 per cent in 2006-07 to 37 per cent last year.
Mr Swinney said: “We are working to close the attainment gap in many ways, including investing £750 million during the course of this parliament. The gap between the most and least deprived communities for young people entering work, training or further study is half what it was in 2009-10, a higher proportion of students from our most deprived areas successfully completed substantial college courses last year and a record number of students from the most disadvantaged areas successfully gained a place at university last year.
“These early results are encouraging but we know there is more to do to raise attainment which is why we remain committed to initiatives, like Education Maintenance Allowance, to remove barriers to education and give all our young people an equal chance to succeed.”
Scottish Green education spokesman Ross Greer said: "Despite the government's smoke and mirrors, the number of young people receiving EMA has gone down by over 2,500, whilst child poverty itself has risen.
"What John Swinney didn't mention in his statement is that two-thirds of children in poverty don't live in deprived postcodes, so whilst supporting those communities is important, it misses the overwhelming majority of young people living in poverty and in need of support."
He said the expansion of a scheme to maximise family income supported by the Greens would make a "huge difference" once fully rolled out across Scotland.
The EMA allowance was originally introduced in August 2004 for 16-year-olds, but by 2007-08 eligibility had been extended to include 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds.
The income thresholds are £24,421 for families with one dependent child and £26,884 for families with more than one dependent child in the household.