Cuts mean the 'tough decisions' fall on teachers

2nd September 2011 at 01:00

Many years ago, when I was a teenager in the sixth-form, I was in difficult financial circumstances. But I was able to access a grant that paid for my travel and my clothes and food. I was able to top this up with a Saturday job and even holiday work. Likewise, when I went to college I got a full grant and also worked in the evenings and holidays. Without this support I would not have been able to become a teacher.

I wonder how many young people in a similar situation will be denied an education and a future career path? I suspect there will be a great many.

Before we broke up for the holidays I spent a lot of time trying to work out a sensible way of deciding how the new 16-19 bursary (previously known as the education maintenance allowance, or EMA) should be distributed in my school. In his wisdom, education secretary Michael Gove has decided that it is my responsibility to make this decision, not his. He wants me to have autonomy. Well, thank you very much Mr Gove, but this is a decision I think you should make. After all, you decided to cut the grant in the first place and replace it with a paltry sum that will serve little purpose and will certainly not help support young people in difficult circumstances in post-16 education.

We were informed that we were getting a fifth of the money we got for EMA grants. If we award all those who were eligible last year they will get less than #163;5 a week, so we need to be more ruthless in our decision-making.

The guidelines suggest we need a clear statement and a governor policy on eligibility and payment of the bursary, but I am not quite sure where to start.

The guidance makes recommendations about eligibility to the bursary by taking account of the young person's household income. To do this I will need evidence from parents: receipt of benefit andor P60, tax credit award notice, and evidence of self-employment income.

Easier said than done. We have enough problems trying to get parents to give us their new mobile phone numbers and addresses, so the chances of us collating such personal information are very slim. I know that most parents would see this as a real intrusion into their private lives, particularly when the size of the bursaries is so small.

Sadly, many of our vulnerable students and those most in need of financial support are the ones whose parents or carers don't engage in school in any way and are unlikely to make any attempt to access this fund on behalf of their children.

Furthermore, there is the time and effort it will take to try to gather this information. We are told that we can use 5 per cent of the total grant to put towards administration costs, but as the amount is so small this will be paltry.

The providers (that's us) must determine the scale of bursaries, the frequency of payments, the method of payment and agreement about the standards that need to be met before the bursary is paid - for example, attendance, standards of behaviour, progress targets met, or other criteria relevant to that student. Every school will do this differently.

The criteria for distribution of the bursaries are at the discretion of the provider, but the guidelines suggest that they should go to young people in care, young people in receipt of income support, disabled young people in receipt of the employment support allowance or disability living allowance, plus other young people facing financial barriers to participation. Sadly, this final category describes the large majority of my school population, yet I know that I will not be able to grant them a bursary.

I am not sure how Mr Gove expects us to achieve equity and parity of allocation of funding across institutions, if indeed he has considered this. What happens if one school or sixth-form decides to add some surplus funds to top up their allocation, offers the bursary to more students and uses this as a marketing tool? Potentially, this could lead to twin sisters taking identical courses in different schools in the same borough but receiving different amounts, or one sister receiving no funding at all. The possible scenarios for unfairness are countless.

Whatever we (the provider) decide, we will be answerable to students and parents. We will have to be very clear about why their child gets nothing while the boy who lives next door with similar family circumstances gets a bursary.

There may be some who decide to sue their child's school for what they perceive as unfair treatment, and others who are more likely to come down to the school to shout at and threaten us because they feel their child has been unfairly treated.

I am sorely tempted to refuse to distribute this grant - I just cannot see how it can be done fairly.

Kenny Frederick is headteacher at George Green's School in east London.

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