The wages of learning

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Maintenance allowances are meant to motivate kids from less well-off families but they may be storing up trouble, says Penny Ward.

Just as we thought grants were a thing of the past, along comes the education maintenance allowance - money for those who need it most to help them stay in education. The EMA is being piloted throughout the UK. The aim is to offer disadvantaged 16-19s an incentive to continue in full-time education in school or college. At first glance it seems generous - between pound;10 and pound;30 a week, plus hefty bonuses at the end of term to children whose family income is less than pound;30,000.

In order to encourage them to participate and stay through the whole session, the EMA is paid into the pupil's bank account. It was hoped that it would improve motivation, and perhaps attainment. By giving the money directly to the youngsters, it was giving them a chance to be responsible, while also building self-esteem and offering autonomy.

And, of course, it is like work. You have to turn up and do what you are supposed to do or you lose it. For those on the highest amount (and therefore from the poorest homes), it will provide money for school clothes, lunches, buses - but it is up to them how they spend it.

On the face of it, this seems like a good idea. Children from poor homes leave school sooner and achieve less academically than those from more advantaged backgrounds. Britain has a relatively high teenage pregnancy rate, high crime rate and high levels of drug and alcohol abuse - with a strong correlation to those leaving school at 16.

There is high unemployment but no benefits are paid to these young people - although the child tax credit is removed as soon as they leave education.

It is little wonder that family tensions often run high at this stage. From a parent's point of view, anything that keeps young people safely in school is welcomed.

For the pupil, it might make the unbearable bearable - and in fact those who receive the allowance do attend more regularly which might lead to better exam results, and a brighter, rosier future. It might also keep them nicely in beer and the odd joint and keep the fashion industry turning.

However, there seems to be little evidence of increased attainment so far despite a learning agreement which requires regular attendance, responsible behaviour and working towards agreed learning targets.

This might well reflect the fact that the fifth-year curriculum does not really suit young people who are not academic, may have a fairly low reading age and who made their teachers' lives hell throughout their third and fourth year because they found schoolwork boring.

Unless pupils can choose subjects that interest them, that match their ability, age and aptitude, then of course they will continue to cause problems. The teachers' point of view? Their job is made grim by the relentless flow of sullen, disruptive pupils.

The good and conscientious get lost beneath the tide of non-co-operation.

Reporting back weekly on progress to the local authority will add to a teacher's workload. How easily can one report back on something as subjective as behaviour and diligence?

And while it has been stressed that no stigma be attached to those receiving the allowance, and no direct threat that it will be removed be made, isn't it a bit hard on those not getting it? Will their work, attendance and behaviour be monitored as carefully?

I would like to think the EMA is a positive step forward - but I'm not sure a disaffected pupil has the maturity to respond to the learning agreement.

I am also not sure that enough attention has been paid to providing the right course at the right level for these pupils.

It is early days, and if the EMA does help some young people to escape from the relentless grind of poverty and unemployment it can only be a good thing. But cynical to the bitter end - maybe the money is needed more in these households when the kids are wee and their mum is forced into low-paid jobs or struggles to get by on benefit in poor housing with little support? That might just make a real difference.

Penny Ward is a teacher in Angus.

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