Thursday, 31 March 2011

Welcome amendments to EMA proposals.

Michael Gove's amendments to the original EMA proposals were greeted by shrieks of "U turn" from the Labour Party. I find this regrettable. It would indeed be nice if governments always got things right at the first go, but when they do not and are prepared to listen and be flexible, in a grown up democracy that should be welcomed rather than mocked.

The arguments for and against paying some students to continue their education beyond 16 are complex. My initial reaction to the EMA was the “grumpy old man” one that no-one paid me to stay on into the sixth form and my parents were certainly not rich. Indeed it’s interesting how perceptions have changed. In my grandparents' day children were usually required to go out to work to supplement the family income. In fact one of my father’s sisters who won a scholarship to the grammar school (that would be in the 1900s) was forced to leave at 13 because the family “needed the money” she could earn in the mill (at which humble level she stayed for the rest of her working life.) Although, in the 1950s my parents never put any such pressure on me it was clear that they regarded it as a sacrifice on their part to allow me to stay on at school.

So what’s their problem today, when we are approximately four times richer? Even families on benefits are probably, in real terms rather than comparative terms, far better off then we were.

These allowances are available to all students where the family income is below £30 000 (though I suspect that the full amount is not available to those at the top of the range.) Maybe I’ve been retired so long (since 1988) that I’ve lost track of the way salaries have moved, but, since the average wage is around £24 000 a year, £30 000 a year doesn’t strike me as the bread-line.

Still on the "grumpy" tack, the evidence is that 90% if the recipients would stay on in education anyway, so there is a heck of a lot of what economists call “deadweight loss.” In an article by David Blanchflower in the Guardian on 21st Jananuary (“Cutting the young adrift”) he claims that the evidence on which this 90% is based is rather flimsy, but one interpretation would be that it’s only 88% - still a lot.

Finally on this tack, a friend who has worked more recently than I with the 16 -19 sector, and who seems to me to have generous liberal instincts, says that for most of them the EMA is just mobile phone money. I rarely use my mobile phone because I feel calls are far too expensive. Better to wait till you get home and use the land line, on which all internal calls are free with the Phone Co-op.

On the other hand, Polly Toynbee, in numerous articles, claims that for “many” studentsthe EMA provides invaluable money for transport and even food as free school meals are no longer available for post-16s (is that right, even if you’re in an 11 to 18 school?) It also provides an incentive to work hard because the allowance can be discontinued for absenteeism, lateness and lack of homework.

In addition to observaions and experiences in this coutry I cannot help comparing the experiences of young people in this country with those of the students in this age group whom I taught in Papua New Guinea. Many came from isolated areas with virtually no cash economy. They or their relatives often had to walk many miles week after week to the nearest market with their produce and then sit patiently besides tiny piles of potatoes or other vegetables which sold at 20c a time in order to raise the "token" $20 fee to attend Sixth Form College.

The new proposals seem more efficiently targeted and cater for the most needy cases. Of course, in theory I prefer universal rather than means tested benefits, but free school dinners etc are already means tested so this is only a development of an existing scheme. Free local bus and train passes for all in full time education would be a sensible universal benefit which would get around the travel problems without much "deadwigth loss, " since the offspring of the rich would use their motor bikes and cars. As with so many other "welfare benefit" propblems, a lot of the difficulties would disappear if the Green's proposal of a Citizens' Income were adopted. If everybody gets it then no-one can grumble.

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