EMA was an enemy of youthful autonomy

Don’t bring back the education maintenance allowance – it was a patronising slap in the face of poor students.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

Alan Milburn, former Labour MP and now child-poverty adviser to the Lib-Con coalition government, has declared that the Lib-Cons made ‘a very bad mistake’ when they abolished the education maintenance allowance (EMA).

That weekly grant gave support to the ‘the most vulnerable’ 16- to 18-year-olds, said Milburn. It provided students from low-income families with up to £30 a week if they attended school regularly. Education secretary Michael Gove abolished EMA last year on the grounds that it was badly targeted and went to too many children. Milburn counters that EMA significantly increased participation rates in the post-16 education system, and its abolition has had a ‘damaging impact’ on young people. EMA provided an incentive for poorer 16-year-olds to stay on at school, its supporters say, and its removal means that further and higher education will continue to be monopolised by comfortably off kids.

In fact, EMA was a bad idea from the very start, since it was introduced in 2004, and its abolition last year was to be welcomed. There is something deeply patronising in the idea that 16-year-olds from low-income backgrounds could only stomach school if they were being bribed to attend. This portrays less well-off young people as being so empty of motivation, so bereft of any meaningful desire to learn, that only some extra pocket money could shift them out of bed. EMA also revealed how contemptuous the New Labour government that introduced it was towards the idea of learning for its own sake; EMA treated reading books and writing essays as something akin to cleaning chimneys, requiring payment. For earlier generations from low-income backgrounds, the desire to carry on learning was a powerful enough incentive to put off paid work for another two years, sometimes even more.

That incentive also meant that these students had a greater appreciation and love of learning. The sacrifices that were made so that a student from a poor background could study for longer, with no immediate reward and no guarantee of a place at a good university, meant such students had to take the endeavour very seriously indeed. Ironically, it was the lack of financial reward that led students to value their time studying. In the pre-EMA days, doing badly in A-level exams meant that those two years in which you could potentially have been earning a wage were wasted.

Critics of the abolition of EMA argue that students from poorer families might be expected to work in order to add to their family’s income – and such objective barriers to studying mean that even the most motivated poor person would find it hard to stay in education. Yet this overlooks the fact that earlier generations of working-class youth often juggled full-time employment with night school. It was once fairly common for someone who had worked since leaving school at 16 to return to study at evening classes in his twenties. (Rose-tinted supporters of the Labour Party’s education policies tend to forget that, in 2006, the party cut back on adult education evening classes because they didn’t contribute to the economy – see Free thinking not allowed, by Neil Davenport). EMA champions also ignore the blindingly obvious point that sixth-formers and FE students tend to have weekend jobs or to work during holiday periods if they need some income.

Making sacrifices in order to study, and being self-reliant enough to find part-time work, are both important gateways towards adult responsibility. Far from viewing these sacrifices as burdensome, most sixth-formers quietly relish those first steps towards autonomy and becoming responsible for their own lives. The introduction of EMA stunted many young people’s development into adulthood. The teary-eyed propaganda about ‘vulnerable young people’, which always accompanied the championing of EMA, presented working-class youth as babyish victims in need of rescue by a benevolent state.

Low-income students entering further-education colleges quickly picked up on how soft such establishments are today; and such softness can act as an invitation to unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of ‘the system’. So alongside being paid to attend classes, students quickly figured out that medical reasons could be used to justify why your handwriting or spelling wasn’t up to scratch. Not only could you avoid responsibility for earning an income, but you could even avoid taking responsibility for working hard or behaving in a grown-up manner. Rather than young people having to prove their academic abilities to their teachers, we had a situation where educational institutions were caring for 16-year-olds, looking after their self-esteem and financial needs. EMA transmitted the idea that somebody else should be responsible for providing you with income – which is not a good lesson to teach those who are just becoming adults.

EMA signalled a shift in how the therapeutic state treated young people. Traditionally, young people had to prove themselves to society, and were then rewarded for their struggles. Now, many seem to believe that young people should be rewarded or recognised, not for what they have achieved, but for the fact that they are deemed to be ‘disadvantaged’. But such outrage over government cuts always dies down when retired pensioners are involved. Whenever the coalition government cuts pensioners’ perks, there is quiet, nodding approval in the media, among some of the same commentators who demand the reinstatement of EMA. There is an increasingly common view that it is scandalous that pensioners should retire in comfort while young people live in so-called poverty.

Far from the abolition of the EMA representing a damaging attack on young people, it has gone some way towards redressing the balance between responsibilities and rewards. In the long run, that is far better for the development of the young than providing them with £30 a week.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at the Midnight Bell.

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Topics Politics


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