Saturday, 20 November 2010

Polly Toynbee. EMA. Again.

Of the many things that annoy me about the defence of EMA, perhaps the one that annoys me the most is the suggestion that without it, poor kids will simply give up school, sit at home and rot. Polly Toynbee makes this point very clearly in the title of her latest article:
How to turn 60,000 students into unqualified drop-outs.
That statement is based on a profoundly regressive and demoralising belief - the belief that the government are all powerful, that individuals are cogs in a machine, passive recipients of government largesse or stinginess, unable utterly to make a difference to their own lives. With one sweep of a pen, government can transform 60,000 otherwise hard-working and intelligent students into 'unqualified drop-outs'.

This is simply not true, and worse than being untrue it seeks to dehumanise poor kids. It is yet another example of what I see again and again - that many Labour policies of the last decade or so, whilst aiming to help the poor actually ending up entrenching their poverty. Worse, not only do they entrench poverty but they make people’s lives spiritually and emotionally weaker.  If you suggest to kids that their entire success is down to government handouts, you suggest that nothing they do themselves is that important (see Bridget Phillipson and Andy Burnham). If they do succeed, the implication is it’s not really down to their own efforts; if they don’t succeed, well, it’s the fault of government for not being kind enough.

Of course we know that this is simply not true. Personal endeavour does make a difference, and accounts for many of the differences between people born in exactly the same circumstances. Taking responsibility for yourself is not a nasty right-wing doctrine but is actually the first step to leading a fulfilling life.  There are undoubtedly many unfairnesses in British life, and we should work to get rid of them, but we also need to remember that in terms of opportunities and resources, modern Britain is one of the best places in the world and in human history to be born in.

But, the worry is that if you tell people they are completely powerless enough, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and kids really start to believe it.  In case you doubt the impact that these sorts of ideas can have, take a look at the Save EMA website where hundreds of pupils show they have completely swallowed these sorts of beliefs.  None of them attempt to come up with any ways around the EMA cut – their kneejerk response is to say why this means they cannot stay on at school and why this will doom their entire future:
michael Thorpe: this would not be good this is to help me get to college by travel and it is to help me provide for the courses if i dont get my EMA i will not be able to continue my education meaning i woould not get to get the grades i need for universty meaning no future
nadine wellings: If they took EMA from us students at college’s all around the borough will leave the course. They obvoisly need to have money to live on, so will have to there-fore end up working. Meaning that there will be way less nurse’s/doctors/police/etc. It’s not just us losing out it’s the whole of the community.
Connor Clarke: EMA should not be stopped because people won’t want to come to college. I need my ema because this gives me an insentive to learn.
Nicola Duke: I feel that if EMA is taken away I would be more enclined to go and get a lower class job which would not help me in later life. EMA is an insentive for me to learn and I don’t want it to be scrapped.
Leon Sutton: I think that I should be able to get money if i’m attending training it’s my insentive to learn.
James Murray: If EMA stops I will stopp attending college and go on the dole and that would then cost more.
Kathy: I myself as a student would suffer without ema, and so would many others, and then they go on about Anti social behaviour etc..?of course that will increase if students dont bother going to school,what else will they do?
Look at the attitudes in these posts.  Listen to the way the kids quite literally view themselves in a dehumanised manner – they need an ‘insentive’ to learn, because apparently the incentive of it getting you a better job in the long term or, god forbid, the incentive of the love of learning, are just not enough. If Nicola Duke knows that getting a lower class job will not help her in later life, why does she not try and find a way to stay on at college? The myth that kids will be dropping out to get jobs is fairly well exploded by Kathy and Dianna who acknowledge that the kids who do drop out won’t be doing so to earn a few quid for the family coffers, but will be dropping out in order to get in trouble on the street and cause anti-social behaviour. James Murray seems to want to cut off his nose to spite his face - he would rather quit college if he doesn't get EMA to go on the dole and therefore financially punish the government.

What would Polly Toynbee and Bridget Phillipson be doing if they were teachers, I wonder? What advice would they give pupils like these? Would they say that they felt sorry for the pupils but that they should try and stay at college anyway because it would be worth it in the long run? Would they help the really needy with practical ways to meet travel and book costs? Would they try and point out – gently – that before 2004 lots of poor kids did manage to get through 6th form without EMA? Or would they tell all the kids on EMA that they were absolutely sunk, that they’d probably drop out within a few weeks and that because of the evil government there was absolutely no future for any of them so they might as well give up now?

I know what I am going to do, and I think I know what Toynbee and Phillipson would do too.


  1. Spot on!

    I share the same sentiments with regards to Higher Education and the fees hike; everybody banging on about a 'lost generation of bright young people' as a result.

    But the truth is, is that truly bright people with a bit of resolve & tenacity don't care about student debt or any other 'obstacle' - they go out and achieve. They take responsibility and succeed as a result.

    The same with the EMA; I took my A-Levels in 2005, so just on the cusp before the EMAs came into effect. I remember when I first heard this notion of being 'paid' to attend college that I literally couldn't believe it, I was flabbergasted. It was like Christmas came early as it seemed a wholly fanciful, delicious idea. Of course I was gutted to find out I wouldn't be entitled to it, but the talk soon turned to how people to claim it and indeed scheme to grab it. Overall it appealed to our basest of instincts, of greed. Good riddance.

  2. I absolutely agree with every word. If only Polly Toynbee would actually go and speak to these students teachers she would get a true idea of the difficulties that EMA causes. I personally am sick to death of my students thinking they can bully me into signing to say they attended a lesson that they did not - just to get money to go out on the town that night with their mates. There are better ways to encourage students to have some autonomy - and as you say it - a true love of learning for learnings sake. Time for these individuals (and their parents in many cases)to get real.
    As to 'drop-outs' maybe the government should actually start to measure the drop-outs from FE to HE progression to get an accurate idea of what a 'drop-out' is: not everyone is suitable for uni life - its not a failure if you're not - its a fact.

  3. Wow! I'm assuming these are all over 16? The spelling and grammar is shocking! Not a single one is correctly written. These kids hope to go to university? Dear Lord!!

  4. Nice to see you mocking earnest students for their spelling when repeatedly referring to Bridget 'Phillopson'.

  5. JM, you're right, that's an error and I have updated it. I'm always glad to have people point out errors - no one is perfect. We're all human and an error rate of one word amidst the several thousand I've written here isn't too bad I think, although we can always strive to do better and I most certainly will in future. Do you think the spelling of these students is OK then? Is it OK to spell poorly and punctuate incorrectly if you are 'earnest'? And if you care that much about basic accuracy, will you be joining me to call on the NUS to correct their confusion of percentages and percentage points?

  6. 1. I really couldn't care less what nonsense Porter et al come out with.

    2. No, I don't think spelling mistakes are a good thing. But I do find snide blog posts from teachers mocking those who clearly haven't been educated well enough to spell properly quite offensive.

    Thank God my teachers didn't have that attitude, if they had no doubt I wouldn't be able to spell either.