More on Education Maintenance Allowance
Yesterday Education Secretary Michael Gove announced his plans for replacing the Educational Maintenance Allowance. While better than may have been expected, it still takes too narrow a view of who the poorest children are and in so doing introduces a disincentive for parents to find work.
The replacement for EMA is more explicitly targeted at the “poorest” children. The replacement will cost around £180m, in comparison to £560m annual cost of EMA. A previous article looked at the arguments for retaining EMA and this £180m is more than three times the sum floated at the time that was written. So in that regard, it is better than it could have been.
There will be a bursary scheme for 12,000 pupils, who will receive up to £1,200 a year. It will be targeted quite closely at care leavers and children who are claiming Income Support for themselves. This fund is worth around £15m a year. The remaining money will form a discretionary fund, the distribution of which would be up to individual schools. Mr Gove said that the new fund would be sufficient to give up to £800 per year to every child aged 16-18 receiving free school meals.
This comment gives rise to a couple of thoughts.
Firstly, the funds will be administered by individual schools. Let us assume that money is allocated to schools according to the number of pupils receiving free school meals. The pupil premium, to be introduced in time for the next academic year, is calculated in the same way. Take-up of free school meals is often claimed to be low due to the stigma attached, and is certainly nowhere near 100% of those eligible. There is now a huge incentive for schools to increase their take up of free school meals, as two significant funding streams will be allocated on that basis. One can only expect the number of children receiving free school meals to rise as a result.
Pupils are only eligible for free school meals if their parents receive out of work benefits. The previous Labour administration had plans to extend eligibility to low income working households receiving the working tax credit. The coalition chose not to do this, and retained the focus on workless households. But we know that over half of children in poverty are in working households . Most of these children will not be eligible for free school meals and so neither will they be eligible for the new discretionary fund.
This is a serious disincentive to work for parents of children aged over 16. EMA got round this problem by basing eligibility on low household income, not household work status. But under the new system, if, for instance, the new bursary were worth £20 per week, parents could be looking at losing around £120 a month by finding work. This compares to around £40 per month previously (for the cost of the meals themselves). So what was a small “cliff edge” faced by parents returning to work is now a substantial one
Presumably, the introduction of universal credit, scheduled for 2013, could fix this problem. Until then, what is a useful benefit for out of work parents but no more than a decent proxy for disadvantage will be carrying the weight of two substantial education policies.