Why social mobility should start at school

Higher university fees and the end of the EMA grant were already deterring poorer teenagers from continuing their education. Now the English Baccalaureate could be the final straw, argues John Dunford
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The Independent Online

At the end of 2010, headteachers were reporting that the combination of the end of education maintenance allowances (EMAs) and the rise in university fees was causing a worryingly large number of 15- and 16-year-olds to decide not to stay in full-time education after their GCSEs.

Then along came the English Baccalaureate as a new secondary school accountability measure, influencing schools to channel pre-GCSE pupils into English, mathematics, two sciences, history or geography and a modern language, and we have a triple whammy, making it much harder for schools to keep all young people motivated through those vital final two years of compulsory schooling and to encourage them to remain in full-time education.

In Japan, ema are small wooden plaques on which Shinto worshippers write their prayers, hanging them at a shrine where the gods receive them. The symbolic optimism of these wishes is in marked contrast to the gloom being felt in schools and colleges at the loss of the EMA.

The Government has argued in Parliament that the £560m cost of funding the EMA was "poorly-targeted". Headteachers and college principals tell a different story. The £30-per-week EMA has been the key factor in keeping young people from low-income families in education.

According to Labour education spokesman, Andy Burnham, the Government is "kicking away the ladder of opportunity", a line strongly supported by the students protesting in central London in January.

The recent partial U-turn on EMA and the subsequent confusion about the amount that the Government will need for its bursary scheme are unlikely to counteract the negative message of the EMA cancellation.

The maximum £30 EMA went to students from families earning up to £21,817, with £20 and £10 EMAs paid to students from families on up to £30,810. The allowances were intended to cover equipment, books and transport, but the student could spend the EMA as he or she wished. The only proviso related to attendance. Young people in rural areas were particularly dependent on the EMA to pay the high cost of transport to college.

The Government has promised to replace the EMA with a discretionary bursary fund administered by colleges, but this will be a fraction of the EMA bill and will therefore support fewer students, with research by the University and College Union suggesting that as many as 70 per cent of students receiving the EMA would drop out of college if their grant was stopped.

The percentage take-up of EMA is higher than the 80 per cent take-up of free school meals. Whereas there is a stigma associated with free school meals, the EMA has been seen as a wage for engaging in full-time learning.

It has the added advantage that it is paid to the young person, rather than the parent.

Save The Children has said that removing the EMA "will have a worse impact on the poorest pupils than increasing tuition fees", but the message from the headteachers, particularly in academies and other challenging schools, was that it is the combination of the EMA and the fee rise that will prove fatal for post-16 participation in full-time education.

The problem with the increase in university fees is that it will push the potential debt after graduation up to £30,000 and beyond, and this will be a particular disincentive to young people from poorer families, who are much more debt-averse than their middle-class peers, whose parents have mortgages and other loans as a matter of course.

In the combination of the EMA and the fee rise, there is a real danger to social mobility, but the third part of the triple whammy hitting young people from poorer families is the English baccalaureate and its effect on the pre-16 curriculum. Curriculum choices will be fewer and vocational studies will not be accorded the GCSE equivalence points that encourage schools to put on a good range of vocational options for 15-year-olds.

The Government has made a very deliberate policy decision to use the English Baccalaureate as an additional school accountability measure, in order to create an incentive to more young people to study a modern language, history and two sciences. Fearing both their place in league tables and the future prospects of their students, schools are channelling more students into these courses.

Other subjects will become unviable, especially in the current financial climate, and choice will be limited. More 15-year-olds will become disaffected before they are 16 and, unless they are the sort of students who flourish on an academic curriculum, the chance of getting them to continue their studies is greatly reduced.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has concluded that the EMA not only helps individual students, but is socially and economically beneficial, a view backed recently by an influential group of economists. The English Baccalaureate is proving extremely unpopular with headteachers and there have been widespread protests about the rise in university fees. But it is the effect on the life chances of the young people who are now deciding that they will not remain in full-time education after 16 that makes this triple whammy so serious.

Only Government action across all three elements of this problem will start to repair the situation. The near-universality of £9,000 fees for a high quality higher education will seriously damage social mobility, so the Government must institute a much more generous scholarship programme for less well-off students.

The EMA needs a further funding boost and must retain the concept of a salary, not a hand-out, for eligible students. And the English Baccalaureate must be recognised as a policy error and used as the start of a national debate about what kind of baccalaureate is needed in England.

Dr John Dunford is chair of the pressure group Whole Education and a former general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders