EMA: time to stop whingeing, kids

Yesterday’s Guardian had a story about the latest group of people to have their freebies taken away by the evil Tories – in this case sixth-formers claiming the education maintenance allowance (up to £30 a week) at the Brooke House, sorry “BSix” sixth-form college in Hackney, east London. Yes, that really is what the college officially calls itself.

Sadly, what was intended as a heart-rending tale of brutal hardship in fact demonstrated why this particular benefit – which is received by almost half of all UK sixth-formers –  is so often unnecessary. Three students were interviewed. James Adams, from London Fields, claimed to “spend most of it on travel.” This is surprising, and I wonder how he manages it.

The usual way to travel from James’s home in London Fields to the college, which is at the Clapton roundabout, is by bus, a journey of less than two miles and about ten minutes. And all sixth-formers in London get free bus travel. (God forbid, a healthy young person could even walk – it would take less than half an hour – or cycle.) Perhaps James is using his EMA to travel by taxi, or saving it up for an entirely different kind of travel. Ryanair has some good deals on student stag weekends, I’m told.

A second student, Helen Kassarate, also said she used her EMA to pay for, among other things, her travel and her glasses, describing it as “a necessity.” We aren’t told where Helen lives, but I dare say her journey is a bus ride, too (no tubes in Hackney) and will also be free. And sixth-formers who need glasses also get those paid for on the NHS. So much for this “necessity.”

The idea of EMA was to persuade teenagers to stay in full-time education. But as the Department of Education’s own research shows (page 11 of PDF), only 12 per cent of recipients said it made any difference to their decision (other research found the figure was just 6 per cent.) It is described as a benefit for the children of low-income families; but in fact, you can get EMA if your household income is as high as £30,800 a year, about £9,000 above the UK average.

Participation of 16-18-year-olds in full-time education did rise after EMA’s national rollout six years ago, but quite slowly for the first three years (from 57.9% of the age group in 2004 to 62.8% in 2007.) In the most recent two years for which there are figures, participation jumped at a faster rate, to 68% by 2009. But that was almost certainly driven more by the meltdown of the economy – and the consequent lack of jobs and apprenticeships for teenagers – than by government bribes. That lack continues, making it quite unlikely that we will see the mass college drop-outs predicted by some EMA supporters.

EMA is a classic Labour policy – an invented entitlement that not many people actually asked for and not many people actually needed, now defended with as much fervour and fury as if it were a decades-old pillar of the Welfare State like free medical care or old-age pensions.

I don’t object in principle to bribing kids to go to college – it’s a lot cheaper than some of the alternatives. But it seems to me that we can target our bribes on a much smaller number of teenagers without any noticeable reduction in effect.

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