A pilot grant scheme introduced to increase the number of students from low-income families appears to be a success, but there are still concerns that overall level of access funding has decreased. Rosie Waterhouse reports
SCHOOLS and colleges across the city of Nottingham are witnessing an unusual phenomenon - teenagers who would normally drop out of education at the first opportunity are deciding to stay on.
The reason? Money. Up to pound;40 a week to be precise. The cause? A radical, experimental "earn as you learn" scheme introduced in September in Nottingham and 11 other pilot areas across England.
Education maintenance allowances (EMAs) are part of the Government's attempts to persuade 16 to 19-year-olds from low income families to persevere and gain skills and qualifications to boost their career opportunities and escape the blight of unemployment or dead end jobs.
EMAs are part of a pound;725 million package of access funds and grants to colleges of further education over the next two years to increase numbers by 700,000.
"The allowance is a tremendously exciting initiative which offers us the scope to make a real difference to the life chances of many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, " said Baroness Blackstone, education minister, when she announced the pound;100m three-year pilot scheme in January.
"Many young people who leave education at 16 are not only the least qualified and least likely to return to education later in life, they deny themselves the opportunities open to their better-educated peers, and deny society the benefit of their skills and participation in community life," said the minister.
She is concerned that the number of 16 to 18-year-olds from poorer households in education or training is 20 per cent lower than for those from more affluent backgrounds.
The allowances were devised to narrow this gap and if the pilots are a success the grants may be available nationally. So far, according to figures collated by the Department for Education and Employment, there had been 11,520 applications for the allowance up to October 1 and applications are still flowing in.
The local education authorities running pilots are Bolton, City of Nottingham, Cornwall, Doncaster, Gateshead, Leeds, Middlesbrough, Oldham, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent and Walsall while the London boroughs of Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark and Greenwich are jointly running a single scheme.
Everyone agrees it is too early to assess whether money will encourage more reluctant students to stay on and if so, whether they will stay the course.
However, the scheme has an in-built incentive in that to qualify they and a parent must sign a Learning Agreement to abide by ground rules such as regular attendance and homework, and if they fail to meet these rules payments will stop.
In Nottingham, Steve Edwards, the city council's EMA co-ordinator is optimistic: "Our intial experience, based on the last few weeks is quite encouraging. We think it's working."
Within the catchment area there are 3,500 16 to 19-year-olds of whom 2,200 would not normally be in education or other kinds of training schemes. By October 1 the education authority had received 1,300 applications for the allowance and more than 800 have been approved. Requests for application forms are still coming in at the rate of 50 a week.
Under the Nottingham scheme allowances of between pound;5 and pound;40 a week, depending on parental income, are paid directly into the student's bank account every week.
Mr Edwards said: "At the moment there seems to be evidence that youngsters who haven't previously seen education as the way forward at 16 are looking at it in a new light."
One headteacher told him how four or five former pupils who had left school, came back to the classroom because they had heard they might qualify for the grants.
The education authority together with schools, colleges and career advisers, is evaluating how much post-16 numbers have increased. The early indications seem positive.
But many areas which do not benefit from the allowance are seriously concerned that the amount of financial support for 16 to 19-year-olds nationally is actually being reduced for thousands of equally needy students.
This September the DFEE switched Government funds for supporting students from local education authorities to colleges. LEAs still award discretionary grants to sixth-formers in schools and they can still give awards to college students from their own coffers.
The new arrangements for student support will provide a package amounting to pound;69m in 19992000. This includes this year's EMAs. In 199899 local authorities spent pound;70m on discretionary awards for FE students.
So the DFEE claims that the level of funding is more or less maintained. But it is being targetted and spread around less evenly than when distributed by LEAs. On the ground many colleges report they are receiving far less funding under the new system.
Dr John Brennan, director of development at the Association of Colleges, explained: "We have told the Government there is less money overall in the system. Less money is available to the bulk of students, except that students with EMAs get far more.
"Lots of colleges find they have less money to spend now, less money coming to them through the new system of access funds than LEAs would have spent on discretionary grants."
Runshaw College in Leyland, Lancashire, is a prime example. In 19989 Lancashire County Council provided grants to 398 students whose parents were on income support or job-seekers' allowance. The council paid a total of pound;173,528, an average of pound;436 for each student. This year the college is receiving just pound;28,045 from access funds so the equivalent students' annual grant is reduced to pound;140 each.
In addition, the education authority is withdrawing support for free transport for students. So those who received subsidies are now having to pay pound;200 each, which the college is subsidising to the tune of pound;250,000 a year out of funds which should be buying books and other resources.
The college is in a rural area where public transport is virtually non existent and the college is now having to pay for private buses. But principal Bernard O'Connell fears next year they may not be able to afford the increased cost.
"So quite apart from the fact that the number of students applying will decline because of inadequate grants, there is a fear next year there won't be any buses for them to get on.
"The irony is that under a government which is well-intentioned towards the socially excluded and concerned about access, access is getting worse; and it is more difficult for the most vulnerable students."
EMA: THE KEY FEATURES
Paid weekly, with additional termly bonuses for retention and achievement, to young people who stay on in full-time education at school or college;
the maximum allowance will be for those whose household income is below pound;13,000. There will be a taper above this up to a an income of pound;30,000;
students will receive a
maximum of pound;30 or pound;40 a week, depending on the pilot;
no restriction on how they spend the money. but in order to qualify they and a parent must sign and follow a Learning Agreement with the school or college. Payment will stop if the
agreement is broken;
child benefit and other
passported family benefits will be disregarded for means-testing
purposes, as will income earned by the student in part-time work.