Students are 'skipping meals' to cut college costs

10th February 2012 at 00:00
EMA replacement is `totally inadequate', charity claims

The first major assessment of life without the education maintenance allowance (EMA) makes for bleak reading. Students from poor backgrounds are being forced to skip lessons and even meals because of the "totally inadequate" sums of money now being given to them, children's charity Barnardo's has warned in a report.

The amount of money available for poor 16 to 19-year-olds fell dramatically from more than pound;560 million a year under the EMA to just pound;180 million with the new bursaries. The experience of students after one term under the new system shows it is "unfair" and "disastrous", according to the charity.

East London A-level student Foram is one of more than 50 interviewees who spoke to Barnardo's, which also provides education and training. The 17- year-old travels for more than an hour and a half each day by bus, rather than paying higher London Underground fares, as well as studying and caring for her mother, who has bipolar disorder. She told the charity that she regularly skips meals because she cannot afford the college canteen.

Another student training to be a motor mechanic, Lorgan, only owns one set of clothes. An administrator at the training centre washes them while he works in overalls provided by the centre.

"What we are hearing from young, very disadvantaged and poor people is that this absolutely isn't meeting their needs," said Jane Evans, the report's author. "Many are skipping meals, are not able to pay for their transport to classes and do not have the money for course equipment."

Barnardo's is calling for an increase of another pound;80 million in bursaries in order to provide sufficient money for every student who is eligible for free school meals to claim pound;30 a week.

"We think that there should be an entitlement and it should match the pupil premium," Ms Evans said. "The government has huge ambitions for social mobility. That can't just stop when they're 16 or 17 - there has to be a continued momentum."

According to Barnardo's, an entitlement for students with a family income of below pound;16,190 would also solve another major problem with the new bursary system: students' uncertainty about what they will receive and the delays introduced by having different systems of administration for the funds at a local level.

Colleges and training providers described staff taking bursary paperwork home at weekends because no one had been hired to administer the funds, even though providers are allowed to use up to 5 per cent of the bursary money for administration.

TES reported last year how the allocations of bursary funding had left some areas with less than half the cash they needed to meet education secretary Michael Gove's stated expectation of pound;800 a year per free school meal student. Barnardo's has called for a return to a centrally administered system, although the Department for Education insists that it is following the wishes of providers by putting the money at their discretion.

"Schools and colleges know their pupils and local areas better than central government ever will, so it is right that they have the discretion to allocate the funding to those pupils who need it most," a spokesman for the DfE said.

More than half of the students had still not received any financial support by November, when the interviews were conducted. "With EMA they could expect to be paid from some time in September," Ms Evans said. "Colleges don't know who is entitled to it until young people turn up, so they start their course without money in their pocket."

Toni Pearce, the National Union of Students' vice-president (FE), said that the bursary is fatally flawed. "The government flew in the face of expert opinion and a mass of evidence, all of which said that the EMA should stay - then rushed to replace it without any proper planning and woefully inadequate funding," she said.

DOWN AND OUT

The pound;560 million EMA scheme provided weekly payments of between pound;10 and pound;30 to teenagers living in households earning less than pound;30,800 a year to help them stay in education.

After being scrapped last year, it was replaced with the pound;180 million bursary fund.

The fund has two parts: a guaranteed payment of pound;1,200 each to a small group of the most vulnerable teenagers and a discretionary fund for schools and colleges to distribute to students facing "genuine financial barriers" to their education.

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