Last Wednesday (the 19th January) Parliament debated the Government’s plans to replace the Education Maintenance Allowance. I voted in favour of the motion calling for the Government to rethink its plans for EMA. I did so because whilst I feel that EMA should be better targeted, I am extremely concerned that the Government has neither put aside sufficient money nor announced the details of its scheme to provide adequate support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to continue in further education.
I must clarify that the Labour motion being debated was NOT a vote on whether EMA will be abolished or not. That vote will happen at a later date, yet to be confirmed. Instead the motion was part of what is called an ‘Opposition Day’ where the opposition party is allowed to call a debate on any issue it wants, but without any binding votes being made at the end of the day.
I believe that it is essential that all young people have access to further education regardless of their background and their family’s income. EMA provided this support for significant numbers of students, but it was far from a perfect system. I simply do not accept that nearly half of all students aged 16 years or older needed financial support in order to stay in further education. In fact only 12% of those receiving EMA would not have stayed in their course had they not been in receipt of EMA (a figure that is backed up by the Institute for Fiscal Studies). In the current economic climate it is simply not possible to spend over £500m per year giving EMA to half of all students, regardless of need. The money must be directed instead to those who need it most. But those who need it most MUST be given sufficient resources. In particular they must be provided with help with travel and with food costs, the main costs that EMA covered.
I am calling on the Government to do the following:
• Continue to pay EMA to students who are part way through a their course.
• Ensure that college students who would be entitled to free school meals in school get the equivalent support in college.
• More money must be provided to help students with travel costs.
Unfortunately, considering how important it is to find a satisfactory solution, the ‘debate’ and motion last week descended into party political point scoring by Labour MPs who were far more concerned with criticising the Coalition Government than they were to do with coming up with serious suggestions. Time and time again I listened to speeches by Labour MPs either denying that EMA needed reform or stating that they accepted that EMA had to be reformed and that many students were receiving money they did not need and yet refusing to come up with alternatives. Not one suggestion was made in a six hour debate and nor was there any recognition of the impact of the financial crisis that this country is currently in.
Labour had planned to scrap EMA once all young people were compelled to stay in education until 18. But just like with tuition fees they oppose any change, even though they intended to do exactly what they are now opposing!
I would like to thank all the constituents who have contacted me about EMA. I shall continue to push for more money to be made available for the many students who need help to remain in further education and I shall keep you updated on any progress.