The Power to Engage- The Education Maintenance Allowance

26th October 2010

One of the latest causalities in the cuts is the Education Maintenance Allowance or EMA. The EMA is a means tested payment of up to £30 a week  for 16-18 year olds who stay in education after leaving secondary school. Its demise is unlikely to cause too much of a storm amongst the public: plenty of people think that the idea of paying young people to be educated is at best unnecessary and at worse, outright bribery. The truth though is that for many young people and their families it can be an effective way of making them rethink the value of education.  In 2008-9 581,899 learners took up the EMA and the budget for the programme in 2010-11 is £564,000,000. Only young people whose families earn under £20,817, who are leaving care or are in certain defined disadvantaged groups receive the full £30.
In families where education is seen as a good in itself and a history of academic achievement and skilled work makes the case for staying in education indisputable, the EMA is indeed unnecessary. The policy was never instituted for these families and that’s why it’s not paid to families with an income exceeding £30,810. In contrast, when one speaks to young people with no family history of staying in education one can try to explain the life-long benefits of staying in education, to argue about their increased earning potential and so on, but valuing such highly deferred gratification is a frequent casualty of socio-economic deprivation. However, providing a little taster of the future gains is an excellent way of counteracting this. I can remember many Year 11s who when discussing their future choices referred to the EMA as a factor swaying their decision. My colleague Laura has also told me about numerous pupils from ethnic minority families that she worked with, whose parents were pressuring them to start contributing to family income by working from 16. Many were able to illustrate the value of continuing their education to their parents using the EMA.
There are also practical reasons for the EMA. A 2008 NUS survey suggested that of those receiving the full £30, 65% could not continue in education without it, that’s over 316,000 young people continuing in education because of the EMA. Yes a compulsory increase in the school leaving age would achieve the same, but if £30 a week will secure a willing, voluntary and motivated learner this seems a much better strategy than another 2 years of young people who feel that they’re only in school because they have to be.
The EMA is also a tool in teaching certain life skills. The organisation Catch 22 recently launched a “Ready or Not” Campaign that called for recognition and support for the lifestage of “young adulthood”. It was launched in response to the deficit in life skills and financial literacy amongst young people in their late teenage to early 20s. The EMA performs valuable functions in this. For example, in order to receive EMA, learners need to set up a bank account and are encouraged to think about how they will use their income.
I’ve been particularly impressed whilst working with City Gateway by the way they use the EMA to engage and develop NEET and at risk of NEET young people’s employability skills (so was Michael Gove when I told him about it). At City Gateway, policies on punctuality, attendance and behaviour are built around the docking of “pay” (EMA) where learners do not conform to a future employer’s expectations. It works. City Gateway only work with the most challenging learners around but they end up doing as well if not better than “average” learners. David Cameron was so impressed that he said “We need more City Gateways”. Perhaps more organisations need to use the EMA as cleverly as City Gateway do, but for a government committed to social mobility, getting rid of it completely seems a surprising step backwards.
* Figures are from the DfE ( and were released on the 14th of July 2010