Monday, 8 November 2010

Polly Toynbee says EMA cuts are 'wicked'...and she isn't using street slang

Sorry, students, but you're low in the pain pecking order | Polly Toynbee | Comment is free | The Guardian

So something I can half agree with Polly Toynbee over. Students are low down in the pecking order of people who will suffer from cuts. But just as I was thinking she's not that bad after all, we get this:

Start with the wickedest cut, the abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) – the £30 a week that helps young people stay in school or college, replaced by a tiny tin of hardship money for unhappy college principals to disburse in extremis.

Yep, that's right.  'Wickedest'. Cutting the discretionary spending of 16-18 year olds is 'wicked'.  Why on earth should anyone take anything Toynbee says seriously when she engages in this kind of hyperbole?  The word 'wicked' needs to be reserved for really evil things, not for policy decisions which at the very very worst will mean a kid having to cycle to college instead of getting the bus.

Things like this also make me wonder if Polly Toynbee knows anyone who gets EMA or anyone who works in the state sector - I mean on the front line of the state sector, of course, not in the panoply of jobs in town halls and quangos. Most of the teachers I know agree with me and think that EMA is ripe for cutting, are we all wicked?  Let's consider some of the other things Toynbee says:
The withdrawal of the EMA for poor sixth-formers that will hit unsuspecting families hard when they find it suddenly gone. Forget Gordon Brown's 10p tax disgrace which only cost people £230 a year: snatching away £30 a week from the very poorest families with studying teenagers will be a £1,560 shocker. 
Unbelievable.  Firstly, these very poorest families didn't get that £30 a week for the first sixteen years of the kids' life.  That's because the point of EMA was never to help families out of poverty - Labour themselves NEVER claimed that. Tax credits, child benefit, other benefits etc., did that.  The point of EMA was basically to persuade kids to stay on at school. It was an educational policy, not a welfare one. The idea was to try and reduce the attractiveness of leaving school at 16 and getting a part-time job. It quite clearly was NOT about lifting families out of poverty - it would be an odd policy that aimed to help families out of poverty by waiting for their kids to be 16 before you helped them. Thus, because it was an educational policy, if a kid didn't attend school, schools were entitled to withhold their EMA money regardless of whether the kid desperately needed the money or not; likewise, a 16 year old in desperate poverty but not in education couldn't claim the money. The clue is in the name: EDUCATION maintenance allowance. Thirdly, pupils became eligible for EMA money as they entered sixth form or college - that is, at precisely the same time as most of them would have a reduced timetable and more time to get a part-time job.  I understand that there aren't that many jobs out there at the moment, but the time sixth formers gain at least makes this a possibility. I also understand that this can impinge on your time for studying, but that seems to me to be an individual lifestyle choice. Lest I be accused of being a heartless bastard, let me restate that I was eligible for the first EMA pilot, that I didn't take it up and I didn't have a part time job - and my family and I didn't suffer some great hardship as a result.

Finally, of course, there is the fact that EMA didn't exist before 2004. I find it hard to believe how such a recent policy has managed to inspire such crazed defences of it, as though it forms a central part of our nation's heritage.  I mean, I thought the child benefit changes were fine, but even so the sentimental appeals to the foundation of the welfare state and its universality did make me a little misty-eyed.  Very few people alive today have had to bring up a family without child benefit, so at least when its rabid defenders claimed that removing it would take us back to the Depression era they had a skewed kind of historical fact on their side. But EMA has been around for barely half a decade. We can all remember a world without it, and we all know that that world was not a wicked, illiberal one where poor kids scrubbed floors instead of doing A-levels. I think the reason why EMA inspires such defences is of course that it was a New Labour policy, so their cheerleaders feel obliged to come out and defend the legacy.  And I think that what this shows is the absolute paucity of that legacy.

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