Learning pays

Get cash to study? Pilot schemes indicate that EMAs could make a big difference to teenagers, says Elaine Williams

Nineteen-year-old Nazir Ali is succeeding against the odds. Few people expected him to be where he is now - at college, working towards qualifications to become a PE teacher. When he met a couple of his former school teachers in the street a few months ago and told them what he was doing, they couldn't hide their surprise. At school he had been a troublesome pupil who narrowly avoided exclusion "many times" and left without any GCSE passes. At 16, he headed off to look for a job at the local Connexions service expecting nothing more than low-paid work in the London fast-food industry. For a boy brought up by a lone, sick mother, any amount of money would do. So when he was told by careers advisers that he could now be paid for carrying on with his studies he began to think again.

Nineteen-year-old Nazir Ali is succeeding against the odds. Few people expected him to be where he is now - at college, working towards qualifications to become a PE teacher. When he met a couple of his former school teachers in the street a few months ago and told them what he was doing, they couldn't hide their surprise. At school he had been a troublesome pupil who narrowly avoided exclusion "many times" and left without any GCSE passes. At 16, he headed off to look for a job at the local Connexions service expecting nothing more than low-paid work in the London fast-food industry. For a boy brought up by a lone, sick mother, any amount of money would do. So when he was told by careers advisers that he could now be paid for carrying on with his studies he began to think again.

The Government had just begun to pilot the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which would provide him with £30 a week and a six-monthly bonus if his attendance and attainment were good. Why not? Now, three years later, with a Business GNVQ under his belt and a Btec in Sport Science underway, Nazir has become a convert to further education and has embraced the student life, becoming president of the City of Westminster College students' union.

He says: "If I had not been offered financial support for college, I wouldn't be here now. I'd be in some low-paid job. As it is, I've gained a Community Sports Leadership Award, I have qualifications in First Aid, an FA coaching badge and ambitions to study sports science at university and teach PE. The way I saw it was that I was going to be paid to study so I might as well have a go. But it gave me a taste for education. I can't receive EMA any more [his grant ran for two years], but I'm still here studying."

Boys with Nazir's background have fuelled this country's poor record in retaining students in education beyond the age of 16. Labour's pre-1997 election pledge to re-engage "a lost generation" in study and work has been stubbornly hard to fulfil.A quarter of 19-year-olds do not have Level 2 qualifications; the figure for teenagers from poor backgrounds is more than two in five; and boys are less likely to stay on than girls.

But the EMA has provided a glimmer of hope. Evidence suggests that students are more likely to study after the age of 16 if they are paid to do so. Findings by the University of Loughborough and the Institute of Fiscal Studies from the seven pilot schemes across a third of local education authorities since 1999, suggest that the introduction of EMAs has increased participation by about six percentage points, and that the greatest impact has been among young men from poor backgrounds. The hope is that when the Government rolls the EMA out nationally from September, the benefits will be further enhanced.

Pupils across England aged 16 can now pick up application forms from schools, sixth forms and Connexions branches. All young people from households with incomes of £30,000 or less will be eligible for means-tested EMA payments of between £10 and £30 a week, paid directly into their bank accounts in return for "strong attendance and commitment". Pupils' attendance will be logged daily, and students who fail to meet the requirement will lose payment.

Paul Bellamy, principal of the City of Westminster College, from which the EMA was first launched, says it has made an enormous difference. About 75 per cent of his student body comes from areas of high social deprivation and the EMA has made a significant contribution towards the cost of travel and equipment for those receiving it. He refutes criticisms that youngsters are only interested in the money, that they will drop out as soon as it stops: "I believe the majority of young people are serious-minded students and this grant goes some way to offsetting financial pressures for them and their families; it develops a discipline and a routine and a determination to succeed."

Shiv Patel, 18, who is studying for a vocational A-level in IT at South Leicestershire College, has been receiving an EMA for two years. He says the grant helped him to buy a computer to carry out his coursework: "I could not have bought one without this help because my parents don't earn enough; my dad works in a supermarket and my mum doesn't work. I have friends from very poor families who would not have been able to buy books for college or anything; they probably wouldn't have even come to college without this help."

Ann Tapp, a course tutor in childcare at Grimsby College, notes that many of her students are able to afford lunch now that they are in receipt of EMAs. She believes the necessity for students to prove good attendance has led to greater discipline and commitment. She says: "We have always had good attendance here, but the students see the EMA as a reward for studying and it has definitely made a difference."

Lara Chaplin, deputy manager at the Odeon cinema in Grimsby and a single mother, is full of praise for the scheme, which supports her daughter Soraya who is studying for a vocational A-level in travel and tourism at Grimsby College. Lara, who is also studying at the College, says the grant has been crucial in encouraging Soraya to stay on. She says: "EMA has been an incentive for Soraya to keep going. She thinks it's marvellous to be paid for studying, and if that's called a bribe then fair enough. It achieves the desired effect. She is now thinking about going to university. She has realised that there's more to life than Grimsby."

education@independent.co.uk

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