Paying students to stay in school is a must, but the current system is wrong, says Carolyn Downs
It looked like a great idea. Children from poor families are leaving school at 16 with few qualifications. The solution? Encourage them to stay in education by giving them up to pound;30 a week. It wasn't to be a freebie; the young person would have a contract that would require work to be completed, regular attendance and good behaviour. The new scheme came into effect last September after a successful pilot. Children whose parents earned less than pound;30,000 would receive a weekly means-tested payment, plus bonuses for compliance with their contracts.
All of this sounds delightful. An Old Labour redistribution of wealth coupled with New Labour emphasis on education and Tony Blair's favourite rights and responsibilities rhetoric: a sure-fire success story. And it's true that many 16-year-olds have stayed in education as a result of the money But it's not all rosy: post-16 education providers are finding that even entry-level courses are too demanding for significant numbers of them.
Thus, although the education maintenance allowance (EMA) has encouraged students to stick with education, the type of education on offer does not properly meet their needs. Blame the funding structures that rely on "bums on seats".
Another difficulty is how students use their EMA money. It's paid directly to them, so hard-pressed parents have no say in how it's spent. Surely paying cash directly to parents would mean a greater chance of it being spent on bus fares, books and lunches? Students have also been reported to have left part-time employment because they no longer need the money; a lesson that the Government clearly did not intend be learnt from EMA.
Teachers who administer the allowance face pressure to bend the rules. Some young people see the cash as a right and are not happy when their teachers insist that the contract be adhered to. Course leaders pressurising staff to keep numbers up exacerbate the problem.
Extra funding in the post-16 sector is a must, as is a reduction in the numbers leaving education early. But EMA is not the answer. Other schemes - such as free bus travel, free lunches, allowances for books and equipment, all administered directly by the education provider - were piloted at the same time. These schemes, coupled with an additional allowance payable to the parents of young people in any sort of post-16 education or training (perhaps through the child benefit system), might have provided as much of an incentive as EMA and caused less of an administrative and social nightmare.
Carolyn Downs is a PGCE student at St Martin's Lancaster