Student protesters and the Labour Party have lost their joint cause to prevent the scrapping of Education Maintenance Allowance in England. The vote was passed by 317 votes to 258, a government majority of 59. The decision came after a long debate in the House of Commons, staged mainly between the incumbent Conservative Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and Labour’s education spokesman, Andy Burnham.
As the voice of austerity, Gove claimed that the grant had been “poorly targeted” and told MPs that “you cannot spend money you do not have”. He quoted figures of a £560m annual expenditure, with administration costs amounting to £36m. “Choices are dependent on the money”, he said, “and where is the money coming from?”
Burnham, meanwhile, argued on behalf of the low-income families that would be affected. He said that EMA is “about people making the best of themselves”, and that its removal would “stack the odds” against the underprivileged and “kick away the ladder of opportunity”. Social mobility, he asserted, would be “thrown into reverse”.
While Gove cited findings by the National Foundation for Education Research that 90% of students who receive EMA would continue in education without the payment – described by Chancellor George Osborne as “90% deadweight costs” – Burnham pointed to research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that says the scheme has increased attendance as well as grades. The IFS posit further that even if the claim of “90% deadweight costs” is true, the expenditure is counterbalanced by the value of increased participation by the young.
The Labour Party was not alone in their purpose, as several hundred campaigners took to the streets of Central London to voice their discontent. They held what has been described as a “noisy but peaceful protest”, hoisting placards as they marched from Piccadilly Circus to Westminster to the music of a wheeled sound system. There were also a group of student protestors who occupied a room in the Houses of Parliament.
Tali Janner-Klausner, 19, a part-time student at City Lit college, captured the consensus of the movement when she said: “Some of the cabinet are millionaires and the government’s propped up by big business… they don’t understand what £30 a week means to many people”.
EMA was established across the UK in 2004 to encourage young people from poorer backgrounds to remain in education. It granted payments of up to £30 a week depending on family income, although a certain level of attendance was necessary to receive the specified amount. Despite being entirely scrapped in England, EMA has only been reduced in Scotland, while there are currently no plans to cut it in either Wales or Northern Ireland.
On these shores, however, the government plans to replace the scheme by tripling the current £26m ‘learner support fund’, which is given to schools, colleges and other training providers to help their poorest students with study-related costs. Details will emerge as part of a review on education by the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, Simon Hughes.