Commentary and opinion on national and regional politics by Seema Malhotra

Sunday, 19 December 2010

EMA – Cost effective intervention or waste of taxpayers money?

Hot on the heels of the Tuition Fees fiasco, the Conservative-led Government looks set to go through with its pledge to abolish the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). Many do not fully understand exactly what the EMA is, or realise that it is means-tested for students from the poorest families in Britain. Launched in 2004, the EMA scheme directly pays eligible pupils up to £30 a week, depending on family income, to stay on at school after compulsory education – i.e aged 16. Entitlement rules are that for family income up to £20,817 per year, a 16-18 year old who stays on in education can get £30 per week, for household income of £20,818 - £25,521 per year the payment is £20 a week, and for £25,522 - £30,810 per year it is £10 a week.
At a speech to IPPR in 2008, Michael Gove claimed the scheme “fails the poorest families and costs too much money”. He also argued there had been an “overcentralisation” of education, saying “the capacity of local communities to set their own autonomous goals, to pilot their own strategies, to develop the relationships they want is constrained and curbed by central government's nationally-set targets, challenges and protocols.”
I have been quite interested in the question of whether indeed as an intervention it has made any difference – particularly to educational outcomes – and indeed whether that indeed represents value for money. It is right that policies come under scrutiny and that tough questions are asked. The additional point to ask is that if it has had an impact, what is the reason for it?
I have to say I was rather blown away by the findings of one of the most robust evaluations to date of what is still a relatively new policy, conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). Because not only did it show an increase in ‘participation’ rates, i.e. staying on in education compared to a control group, but it showed an increase in attainment rates. Pupils on EMA – and in particular from ethnic minority backgrounds – black females and males – were achieving higher grades than they would have otherwise. Generally results were more impressive for we find achievement among females, though interestingly with black females seeing a greater improvement than white females. The report goes on to suggest that even more impressive is the impact among black s males – the impact roughly translated into a one-grade improvement in an AS Level subject across all black males in the pilot areas.
This suggests two things. Firstly that there is a gender and ethnicity penalty that is set to result from the abolition of the EMA. Secondly that when Gove suggested it wasn’t working as a policy for those in the most deprived areas, he was using statistics misleadingly. There is some debate about whether it has the same impact for pupils in least deprived / fairly deprived / most deprived areas and what other factors may be critical to consider. However overall the IFS report, which offers a “conservative” estimate of benefits and it actually suggests could be twice that stated, is incontrovertible in support of the policy achievements.
What we should perhaps pay more attention to then are the other comments that Gove raises (the “overcentralisation” of education and “ the capacity of local communities to set their own autonomous goals, to pilot their own strategies”) which offer a hint as to the politics of this decision, rather than the economics. The achievement of poor – and often black or Asian, but not exclusively so – in deprived areas is a matter for local authorities who may wish to choose which children to invest in and which to not. An aspiration for all children is not what the Tory-led education policy appears to be about. And indeed the findings of the IFS report are supported by anecdotal and qualitative data – such as case studies collated by the Guardian ( But more importantly for me is a conversation I had with a young black man from East London who had recently finished studying, and had had EMA and whose brother was currently on EMA. His view was that it made a big difference to how much time you actually had to study, and for him had resulted in better grades that had enabled him to go to a good university and achieve much more. Indeed, an amount (means tested) of £30 equates approximately to one full day’s work on the minimum wage.
This is an argument to which I am very sympathetic, and in fact I feel hugely saddened that such a targeted investment for some 600,000 of the poorest children at a critical stage in their life, an investment that has had a positive early evaluation, is to be taken away without any clarity of what is to replace it, and indeed why it will be any better.