Paid to go to school, you say? About time too

Back in reception class, I loved a nonsense poem we had - possibly one of Michael Rosen's - about getting paid pound;1 a day to go to school. What larks! A pound a day was a lot of money. But why would we get paid when we were made to go anyway?

Forward 10 years; it's Budget Day 2002 and Gordon Brown announces the educational maintenance allowance (EMA) for sixth-formers. Implemented in September 2004, the grant is for students taking A-levels, vocational qualifications or apprenticeships whose household income is less than Pounds 30,000. The EMA has a starting rate of pound;10 a week and goes up to Pounds 30 for those whose family income is under pound;20,817. The word "bribe" was immediately bandied about, followed closely by "scroungers", and the screech "taxpayers' money!"

At my school, we rechristened it the "FreeMA", struck by the gleeful novelty of getting paid for - well, not very much at all as we saw it.

Although a good few people signed up, any impact it had was muted. It meant that people who might otherwise have taken Saturday jobs didn't have to.

But since most of the people who hadn't qualified for the grant got part-time work, it did not seem like a readjustment of any great imbalance.

Some people - and they were quite keen to broadcast it - seemed to be getting payments against the spirit of the initiative. In cases of divorce, household income is calculated on the parent with whom the student lives, and omits the income of supporting parents living elsewhere (and that of any step-parents). Hence the girl who claimed pound;30 a week while being driven to school in a new convertible, in between yachting holidays.

So, yeah, I wouldn't have minded a slice of the taxpayer's cake, too. But consider the world beyond comfortable Harrogate and things look a little different. For some kids, as detailed persuasively on the DfES website, it means staying on at school without having to worry about bleeding parents dry for bus fares, dinner money and textbooks. The impetus to drop out and join the local supermarket staff is lessened.

At my school, those who spoke of it least were those who needed it most; the guys who used it to buy the food shopping on the way home, or saved it to pay for university. But for Labour, giving students money is a means to another political end, increasing staying-on rates post-16. (Britain currently has the lowest in Western Europe.) The statistics suggest success; staying on increased by 5.9 per cent among eligible students, according to research conducted by Loughborough University. Attendance has improved too. Everyone skipped the odd lesson in sixth form, except the guys on EMA, who were all unnervingly committed. One missed lesson means forfeiting an entire week's payment, a rule that is rigorously enforced.

Nationally, around three-quarters of the 270,000 recipients had good enough attendance and effort to collect a pound;100 bonus by January 2005.

And so - and this is a moment of unapologetic propagandising - it is partly because of the EMA that I joined the Labour party last month. "Education, education, education" was admittedly ripe for parody, but what sort of government gives voteless kids money - stonking great 500 million quid-a-year wodges of money - because of a belief in giving the young a stronger chance of improving on the circumstances from which they came?

Clue: not a Tory one. And so reads the extract from clause four on the back of my shiny red party card: "to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few." Yeah. I'll have some of that.

Matthew Holehouse has just left Harrogate grammar school. His column continues through the summer. Email: mattholehouse

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