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?
Dianna: THEY SHOULD KEEP EMA GOING BECAUSE I CAN HONESTLY SAY NO TEENAGER WILL BE IN EDUCATION EVERYONE WILL BE ON THE STREET MAKING TROUBLE COLLAGES WILL LOOSE OUT OF STUDENTS. WE GIVE UP OUR TIME AND EFFORT ON COMING TO COLLAGE TO HAVE A GOOD FUTURE, UNLIKE SOME KIDS FINISHING SCHOOL AND DOING NOTHING BUT GETTING IN AND OUT OFF PRISON.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.