Saturday, 27 November 2010

Another incoherent defence of EMA

Lisa Nandy, one of the new Labour MPs, makes another incoherent defence of EMA.  
The argument for scrapping EMA is twofold: firstly, the ‘mess’ that Labour supposedly left the unsuspecting Conservative Party to clear up means that they are reluctantly forced to cut public spending and secondly that it will be replaced with a means tested and directed payment to those most in need. This logic does not even begin to stack up. The cuts are a political choice and not a necessary evil at all. 
Incredible. Does she really believe this? People are talking a lot about Lib Dems and Conservatives betraying their election pledges, but Nandy stood for election on the policies of Alistair Darling who said the cuts would be ‘worse than Thatcher’s.’ Bit of a backtrack.  Even Sunny Hundal over on Liberal Conspiracy has worked out that a return to the free spending era of the early part of this century is just not possible.
That means even if the economy recovers fully we have an £48bn (48, not 18 as previously stated) a year shortfall that needs to be plugged. Plus, we need a budget surplus if we want to reduce the national debt – which means perhaps another £5-7bn a year of cuts.
The reason why I am so insistent on this EMA point is because I do believe in a strong welfare state and because I want the money that is spent on a welfare state to be spent usefully and intelligently. It always seemed to me in the middle of the boom that EMA was fairly wasteful. Right now it seems a classic example of low-hanging fruit – a really easy way to make savings without impacting too much on outcomes.  I say this as a teacher who cares about my pupils. What annoys me as well is that people like Nandy and Polly Toynbee don’t have a clue about how this policy works on the ground.  They don’t see the presenteeism it encourages, the arbitrariness of its allocation, the waste of so much of it, the way that students receiving it would skip your lesson for a driving lesson and still not buy one course-related book by the end of the year.  We see how out of touch Nandy is in this part of the article:
The details of the new discretionary learner support fund are yet to be released but initial statements suggest that it will not include any costs for travel, it will be administered by individual schools and colleges and provide headteachers with the discretion to decide which pupils should receive it. The practicalities of this seem absurd, expecting colleges to means-test students. I can’t imagine that many would opt for this.
I actually have some sympathy with this last point, about turning teachers into social workers. But of course, this is exactly what the current EMA system does! As a 6th form teacher at the moment, I am responsible for logging my pupil’s attendance. This attendance is relayed to the local authority and if it dips below a certain point kids don’t get EMA. I know that there are cases of pupils asking teachers to mark them in when they weren't in so that they won't lose out on their money. I am only a 6th form teacher, but I know for a fact that our head of sixth spends an awful lot of time dealing with EMA problems.  So if you really are worried about teachers becoming responsible for welfare decisions, you’d get rid of EMA altogether. As it is, I think the proposed discretionary fund, whilst not perfect, isn’t bad.  It will eliminate the vast mass of kids who aren’t that badly off and would have stayed in school anyway.  Those kids who are really struggling will be able to apply for it and have their individual circumstances taken into account. Most kids who receive EMA are in London, and in London a 16-18 bus pass costs £8 a week, so even if you had to give a lot of kids the money for that you’d still make a significant saving. The problem comes when you see a pupil who clearly shouldn’t be in the 6th form, who is getting nothing out of it, but who is nevertheless really desperate for the money. If I were the teacher or head teacher called to adjudicate on that, I would probably end up giving the kid the money because I felt sorry for them. But again, as I have established, that’s not a problem new to this discretionary fund, that’s a problem present in the current system.

Nandy’s final point is this:
The EMA is a crucial plank of the agenda to widen participation in education. If Michael Gove wants more people from poor households to get to Oxford and Cambridge, as he claims, then he is going the wrong way about it and, if the demonstrations this week are anything to go by, he will live to regret it.
Why was social mobility higher in the 1950s and 60s when EMA didn’t exist? How did all the poor people who went to Oxbridge and other universities survive in the 6th form then? How did 6th formers survive before 2004? Does Lisa Nandy have any answers to these questions?


  1. Sorry, poor people going to Oxbridge in the 60s? What?

  2. Obviously a lot here will depend on what you mean by poor. Families who were fairly well-off by 1940s standards would have been absolutely poor by today's standards. But if we do it by social class and 'relative' poverty, then I think it's clear that the post war grammar school system led to a lot of working class, 'poor' kids going to top unis. This is not at all meant as a defence of grammars - I absolutely would not bring them back and am firmly opposed to them. However, it has to be admitted that one of their benefits was giving amazing opportunities to an intelligent elite amongst the poor/working class. I have a few books on this - I think one is available on Google books and I will try and put the link up soon. Some individual examples include: Alan Bennett, Tony Judt, Harold Pinter, Joan Bakewell, Tom Stoppard, David Davis, Diane Abbott. Davis went to Warwick, all the rest Oxbridge, but you'll notice I didn't confine to Oxbridge, I said 'Oxbridge and other universities'. Those are ones off the top of my head, there are plenty more and I will try and post the stats soon.