Last year the government announced they would be cutting the £560 million Education Maintenance Allowance – a scheme which provides up to £30 a week for low income students to stay in school or college after age 16. This week they revealed what will replace it: a £180m bursary targeted to the poorest students.
In justifying this cut, the education secretary asked whether:
“…it is socially just to be paying 45% of students a cash incentive to stay in learning when we could be concentrating our resources on removing barriers to learning faced by the poorest.”
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has actually already answered his question. They found that EMA increased the proportion of eligible 16-year-olds staying in education from 65% to 69%, and increased the proportion of eligible 17-year-olds in education from 54% to 61%.
Even accounting for the ‘deadweight costs’ (people who would have stayed in education regardless of the allowance), the costs of the scheme are exceeded by the higher wages recipients go on to earn in the future.
Neither should Michael Gove use the high proportion of students who receive the EMA to justify concentrating it on ‘the poorest’. While it is undoubtedly a good thing that the government are continuing to provide for the 12,000 or so most disadvantaged students, the full EMA was only ever given to those children from households earning up to £20,817 and no child from a household earning over £30,810 received any cash at all.
This was already a more targeted transfer than – for example – child benefit. It was also a more conditional transfer than other benefits, because it could be removed if the student failed to attend school, so it was more likely to lead to the government’s intended outcome.
So the evidence suggests that the answer to Michael Gove’s question is ‘yes’ – EMA was socially just.