Ministers unrepentant over huge disparities in bursaries

4th November 2011 at 00:00
They pass the buck back to providers to distribute funds 'flexibly'

When Michael Gove announced the bursary system to replace the education maintenance allowance (EMA), he said it would be enough to provide #163;800 to every student eligible for free school meals.

Figures have since shown a wide disparity between bursaries in different parts of the country. For 23,000 students in 32 local authority areas, the figure has turned out to be significantly less than advertised, prompting accusations that the system is unfair.

But the Government's response, published this week, to the Commons education select committee report on 16-19 participation, makes it clear that ministers are unrepentant.

"It is right that there should be different approaches in different areas - young people's needs are not uniform across the country, and will depend on local and individual circumstances," it said.

"We believe that providers are best placed to decide on the young people that will benefit the most from additional resources.

"The flexibility of discretionary funding also meets the real costs of participation rather than a fixed-cost payment option like the EMA. Some young people need relatively little to address financial barriers while others may require more support."

That the costs of study may vary between colleges and schools in different parts of the country is not disputed. But a TES analysis last month revealed the scale of bursary discrepancies across the country. Students in London boroughs were among the worst affected, including Southwark, where #163;243 was provided per free school meals student, and Lambeth, where the figure was #163;430.

Average funding per student in the 32 local authorities worse off under the changes totals just #163;579. In other council areas, students eligible for free school meals will receive #163;1,168 each in bursaries.

The Department for Education argues that the current system is more responsive than the "blunt instrument" that was the EMA, arguing that it was inundated with complaints about the former system's "inflexibility and perceived unfairness".

But the DfE's optimism for the new scheme is not shared by the select committee members. "It will be difficult to ensure that bursary funds are matched efficiently to need and that inconsistencies which will inevitably arise do not erode confidence in the scheme or distort learners' choices of where to study," the select committee report said.

The committee concluded that it "is not persuaded that a strong enough case has been made for distributing #163;180 million in student support as discretionary bursaries rather than as a slimmed-down, more targeted entitlement".

The Association of Colleges' assistant chief executive Julian Gravatt warned that the haste in which the bursary system was implemented has created uncertainty in the sector. "It's a bit of a mess and it's going to take a couple of years to be stabilised," he said. "We ought to have proper data on which allocations can be based."

Mr Gravatt also expressed concern that the committee's "sensible suggestions" had been "quickly dismissed by the Department".

But, although the DfE has stopped short of forcing schools to hand over free school meals data to colleges, Mr Gravatt welcomed the announcement that it would "encourage them to do so" to help 16-19 providers calculate bursary allocations more fairly.

The Government insists it will keep the method for allocating bursaries under consideration to make sure it reaches students with the greatest need.

Despite the concerns about the administration of the new fund, it is clear that the DfE is, for now at least, sticking to its guns. If principals are hoping to see the data on free school meals, which might help them persuade ministers to change their minds, they face a long wait.

#163;800 - The amount Michael Gove said each student eligible for free school meals (FSM) would receive under the bursary scheme

#163;579 - The average funding available for FSM students in the 32 worst funded local authority areas

#163;1,168 - The average funding available for FSM students in other local authority areas.

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