Impact of allowance in doubt

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
MOST YOUNG people who receive the educational maintenance allowance would have continued with their studies anyway, regardless of the financial incentive. But some stay on at school when it would be more appropriate for them to pursue alternative education, employment or training routes, according to new research.

A report, published by the Scottish Executive, into young people's awareness and experience of EMAs and their impact on their post-16 choices, questions whether the allowance is achieving its aim of preventing young people from joining the Neet (not in education, employment and training) group.

The researchers acknowledge that they encountered difficulties in capturing those at risk of joining the Neet group in their survey. But the report suggests that they have become disengaged well before the age of 16, and the educational maintenance allowance has little impact on them.

Some pupils complained that others were there "just to make up their hours and get the money", and that they were a distraction in class.

A small number of respondents warned that in schools where attendance was the main condition attached to receipt of the allowance, payment reinforced a "benefits culture". By turning up at school but not being required to achieve specific educational outcomes, the process was similar to their parents "signing on" and receiving a payment.

The allowance was piloted five years ago in three authorities before being introduced across Scotland in 2004, and its original purpose was to increase participation and retention in post-16 education. Recently, it has been seen as a potential tool to prevent some young people from falling into unemployment straight out of school.

The research by York Consulting LLP into the views of 229 young people across 23 schools and six colleges in five authorities shows that EMA conditions were applied differently between authorities, within schools in the same authority, and between colleges. This was due to a range of factors, including different monitoring systems, varying levels of control exhibited by authorities, the levels of discretion applied in schools, and the interpretation of executive guidance. The success rates for bonus payments across the five areas surveyed varied from 53 per cent to 89 per cent.

The majority of EMA recipients interviewed were studying Highers and had planned to stay on at school regardless of the financial allowance. However, the payments gave them greater financial independence, less need to work part time, and provided them with more time to study.

"It did mean that the majority of these pupils did not experience the positive benefits of part-time work. The EMA was predominantly spent on personal items and activities. There was no stigma attached to receiving it," said the report.

Among the less positive effects were an increase in the administrative workload and a sense of unfairness among non-EMA recipients those from households with an annual income of pound;30,810 or above.

Positive effects included im-provement in the attendance and punctuality of some young people, increased retention in colleges, increased personal responsibility of young people, and important financial support for college students.

On the whole, college students placed a greater importance on the influence of the EMA on their post-16 choices than senior secondary pupils, according to the report. Their experiences of the allowance differed significantly from those at school: they said they received plenty of information about EMAs, bursaries and travel grants at the beginning of their course; and they found the application system straightforward.

EMAs generally "made life a lot easier" for college students, found the researchers. "It was noticeable that the EMA was used on different items compared to school pupils," they said. "The allowance generally went towards college-related purchases like travel to college and study aids as well as food and household items. Significantly, 42 per cent of college students contributed to household income.

"It is not clear why there is such a difference between college students and school pupils, but it could be partly due to the different ethos at college where students are encouraged to work more independently and, according to the students, treated more like adults."

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