Bursary bonus to boost staying-on rate

24th July 1998 at 01:00
One of the reforms hidden beneath the headlines of the spending review last week was a new educational maintenance allowance for 16 to 18-year-olds.

Its aim, the Chancellor says, is to "make it possible for thousands more young people to stay on in school and go on to further and higher education".

The new allowance is designed to tackle what Gordon Brown described as Britain's "appallingly low staying-on rates". It will be piloted initially and then introduced across the country, using the Pounds 600 million currently spent on post-16 child benefit.

Scotland has long had a system of post-16 educational support, known as the higher school bursary. This year education authorities will pay out Pounds 6.6 million.

Like the proposed allowance, it is means tested and conditional on regular attendance. The income test, however, is not generous. A family earning less than Pounds 10,000 a year is entitled to the maximum bursary of Pounds 864 for one school session, the equivalent of Pounds 19.20 a week. By the time parental income reaches Pounds 12,000 a year, the pupil is not entitled to anything.

Education authorities would normally expect that, in return for a bursary, the pupil must be in school for 21 or more hours a week and have an attendance record of at least 95 per cent.

West Lothian is one authority which wants to boost spending on bursaries - but not just to persuade young people to stay on. It also wants to persuade them not to work long hours out of school, undermining classroom concentration and leading to underperformance.

The authority has allocated Pounds 11,000 to increase its existing bursary expenditure of Pounds 150,000, which benefits 100 pupils. The money is intended to bear the extra costs of staying on at school.

Brian Innes, education support services manager, says: "We have been finding that pupils, who are allowed to work all the hours God sends after the age of 16 and still try to attend school, frequently get to school tired and go home to their beds at lunch time because they have been up since the crack of dawn doing paper rounds or milk deliveries or whatever and simply cannot stay awake."

West Lothian aims to enter an informal contract with around 20 to 25 pupils from two secondaries in its most deprived areas. In return for the extra cash, each pupil will agree not to work "excessively", attend school for stipulated periods and turn up for examinations.

The bursary will effectively top up their pocket money so they do not need to work before coming to school or afterwards. Mr Innes stressed, however, that the council was not intent on imposing an embargo on employment. Studies, particularly in North America, show that working out-of-school hours for up to five hours a week can be beneficial by getting young people used to work disciplines and giving them an insight into life.

"Beyond that, their school work starts to deteriorate. But we would wish to be flexible. If a pupil is working for six or seven hours and his or her teachers say that classwork or homework are not suffering, we would accept that. "

Pupils will be carefully selected following discussions with secondary staff, who will be asked to nominate youngsters whom the school felt could be doing better if they were not distracted by part-time work either during the school day or at weekends.

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