It pays to stay on after 16

Almost half of all eligible teenagers will be able to claim the new educational maintenance allowances this autumn. Sarah Halasz explains the benefits

This term, a scheme that has put pounds in the pockets of English teenagers goes national. Education maintenance allowances (EMAs), a Department for Education and Skills (DfES) initiative, have yielded such an improvement in staying-on rates that the Government is making the extra cash available to all eligible 16- to 19-year-olds. "This is an imaginative scheme that will help lure people to stay in education," says Graham Lane, Newham Council's leader and one of the early proponents of the plan.

This term, a scheme that has put pounds in the pockets of English teenagers goes national. Education maintenance allowances (EMAs), a Department for Education and Skills (DfES) initiative, have yielded such an improvement in staying-on rates that the Government is making the extra cash available to all eligible 16- to 19-year-olds. "This is an imaginative scheme that will help lure people to stay in education," says Graham Lane, Newham Council's leader and one of the early proponents of the plan.

EMAs were launched after research showed that in 2002 the UK ranked 20th out of 24 OECD countries for staying-on rates among 16-year-olds. Evaluation of the pilot, which covered roughly one-third of the country, showed that the extra cash helped offset the cost of transport and books enough to encourage 5.9 per cent more students in Year 11 to continue in education, according to a study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

The allowances are means based and will cost the government about £450m a year. Students will receive £10, £20 or £30 per week, and since students whose parents earn less than £30,000 a year can benefit, almost 50 per cent of all 16- to 19-year-olds in England are eligible.

A national advertising campaign is under way to inform students of the scheme and the deadline for applications is this month. But persuading teenagers of the benefits of EMAs won't be easy. "Where parents are on very low incomes, there is a tendency for young people to think they have to go out and get jobs," says Dith Bandury, vice principal and co-ordinator of the EMA scheme at Lewisham College in south London. "It's not just a matter of them not getting an income if they come to college, there are costs associated with coming to college."

Bandury says that at Lewisham College, EMAs have had a tremendous effect on the number of 16- to 19-year-olds who choose to remain in education. "This scheme does make a difference in enabling young people to stay on when otherwise they wouldn't," she says. "Without some kind of financial support, this kind of education wouldn't be possible for a lot of them."

The overall number of 16- to 19-year-olds attending Lewisham has increased steadily since the scheme was piloted there in 1999, and Bandury says she's certain some of the increase is attributable to EMAs. Not only have they encouraged more students to opt for post-16 education, but they have also affected retention rates, says Bandury. In some pilots, including the one in Lewisham, consistent attendance and retention could net students bonuses each term, so they, "maximise their chances of getting the most of what's on offer", if they buckle down, she says. The bonuses appear to pay off. During this past school year, the retention rate of EMA students was 98 per cent. That's about 10 per cent higher than rates for other students. The national scheme also will incorporate bonuses of up to £500 pounds every two years, depending on attendance and retention.

But how successful will the scheme be when it goes national? Some worry a national programme will decrease the quality of the one-on-one student-adviser support that teenagers received at the local level during the pilot. Most of the concerns lie with anxious college and high school officials, who worry that the plan will be difficult - and costly - to administer.

Dick Palmer is the principal of City College in Norwich, Norfolk. The city wasn't a part of the pilot programme, but is gearing up to start administering EMAs this year. The college has hired three extra full-time staff to handle the scheme. And while the DfES provides £70 per student for administration costs, Palmer says he's a bit uncertain as to whether that money will keep rolling in next year.

"The concern at this point is that the money is only for this year," he says. "What happens next year? The lack of financial support would be potentially dangerous."

Palmer has also expressed concern that student disquiet (if, say, a student's EMA were suddenly to be suspended because of poor performance) could lead to conflict and extra stress. "I don't think these problems are insurmountable," Palmer says, "but I'm sure in the first few months we'll have to get involved in confronting these issues."

Still, Palmer says he's more than willing to support and implement a scheme that has proved so successful elsewhere in the country: "There will be a few teething problems in the first six months, but generally I think it's a super program," he says. "The positives massively outweigh the minor issues. The big thing for me is finally recognising that people studying at 16 and 17 are deserving of support just as much as an 18-year-old university student."

HELPING STUDENTS FOCUS ON SCHOOLWORK

For James Whittle, 19, life would have been a bit harder without the extra £30 in EMA funds he has received weekly for three years. "I probably would have worked a lot more," says Whittle, who just finished his course at Lewisham College and is preparing to start university this month. "So working less meant I had more time to study and do more of my own things."

There is only a small proportion of students who rely on the EMA and who wouldn't be able to attend college without it. But for the rest, including Whittle, the money simply makes it easier to focus on schoolwork instead of constantly monitoring cash intake.

Before he started at Lewisham, Whittle attended a sixth-form college in Hayes, Kent. The commute which takes 1 hour 20 minutes cost £33 each week, so his £30 allowance went entirely on travelling. "I might have managed without the EMA, but it would have been a real struggle," he says.

Now, after two years at Lewisham where the travel expenses weren't quite so steep, Whittle has managed to save enough money to pay for his first year's fees at Kingston University. And the extra cash he saved from his part-time job even helped fund a couple of holidays with his friends.

Terrie Chipping, 17, has been working since she was 12. The teenager from Southwark had various jobs for several years before finding employment at the Superdrug in Brixton, where she works 15 hours per week. Chipping, who attends Lewisham College for its youth entry into higher education course, has received an EMA of £30 per week for the past two years. "When I knew I was going to get the EMA, I said: 'Mum, don't worry about me,'" she says. "She's put clothes on my back, food on my plate, a roof over my head all my life. I told her I don't need anything else now. I can support myself."

Chipping's mother is a trained fitness instructor but stopped working nine years ago to bring up Terrie's younger sister, who is just starting at secondary school. The family has lived off family allowance and income support since then. The combination of salary from her job and the EMA money has allowed Chipping to work fewer hours and have a bit more fun than she otherwise would have had.

"If the EMA refused me," she says, "it was going to be OK anyway, but having that extra money there each week helped me out in certain situations. It would normally be extra money for study groups, really, and for travel cards."

Chipping is planning to attend Greenwich University when she's finished with college.



education@independent.co.uk

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