MPs call for grants for sixth formers

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The Independent Online
CHILD benefit for 16- to 19-year-olds should be abolished and replaced with universal pounds 40-a-week grants for sixth formers, an influential committee of backbench MPs said yesterday.

The Commons Education Select Committee said young people in further education had as much right to support as university students.

Their proposals, published yesterday, would mean axing the pounds 37-pounds 61 a month child benefit parents can claim for 16 to19-year-olds in full-time education. The system of discretionary grants awarded by local authorities would also go.

Instead, all sixth-form students studying full-time at school or college would get a grant, possibly worth pounds 30 or pounds 40 a week, to encourage more people to stay on in education.

MPs also urged ministers to set up university-style means-tested loans for all full-time students in further education. At the launch of the committee's report into further education yesterday the chairman, Margaret Hodge, said: "It is not acceptable that the quality of support varies depending on which area the student lives. Nor is it fair that further education students get a raw deal compared to undergraduates."

Ms Hodge said scrapping child benefit for the over-16s would save pounds 600m a year, while reforming local authority discretionary grants would free another pounds 300m; enough to fund about half the pounds 2bn annual cost of the grants scheme. The rest could come from means-tested loans, she said.

MPs recommended that the grants should be paid directly to teenagers. Ms Hodge said the proposals were not "over-generous", but direct payments would provide a real incentive to learn. "Where the Government should be putting its money is into supporting the tail-end of under-achievement," she said.

The president of the National Union of Students, Douglas Trainer, said that the report had not gone far enough: "We need to end the lottery of funds for further education," he said.

Plans for parental ballots on the controversial issue of selective schools were published last night, clearing the way for a battle over the remnants of the 11-plus system. The regulations, issued by the Department for Education and Employment, revealed that the campaigners will face an uphill struggle.

In areas where most schools are either grammar or secondary modern, one- fifth of all parents must sign a petition to trigger a ballot on their future. Nine authorities - Bexley, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Lincolnshire, Medway, Slough, Southend, Torbay and Trafford - will have to mobilise 20 per cent of parents before a ballot can be held.

In addition, parents who send their children out of their area to comprehensive or independent schools elsewhere will have to register if they want to take part in the process.