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2 Feb 2010 : Column 58WH—continued

Those £10 and £20 payments may seem insignificant to some in the House, but a survey carried out by the National Union of Students in 2008 found that 65 per cent. of participants on the highest EMA rate of £30 stated that they could not continue to study without the EMA. As already stated, the maintenance allowance
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removes some of the barriers to participation in education, and the £10 and £20 brackets are useful in that case, particularly for covering costs towards transport, food and many other things.

Furthermore, unfortunately there are fears that the progress made will be undone by the SNP Administration enforcing changes to the eligibility criteria. That will cut support for those receiving £10 and £20, and cut the allowance to families with an income of between £20,351 and £22,403 with a child, who currently receive the maximum £30. Figures released by the Scottish Government last Wednesday on the EMA show that the old system developed under Labour was successful, with 39,110 college students and school pupils from low-income families taking up the allowance in 2007-08, which means the figure has increased from 38,760.

The figures also show that the allowance helped school pupils from low-income families stay on in education, with 77 per cent. of school pupils on the EMA scheme for a full year completing the attendance rates and learning expectations set out for them, compared with 70 per cent. in 2006-07. The proportion of those receiving £10 and £20 payments who completed the scheme increased to 82 per cent.-the figures for 2006-07 were 74 per cent. for those on £10 payments and 73 per cent. for those on £20 payments. I know that the Minister has no responsibility for the administration of the EMA in Scotland, but the figures show what could happen if support is removed from students on the EMA. That view is supported by NUS Scotland, which believes that those cuts to the EMA scheme by the SNP Administration will lead to almost 8,000 students dropping out this year.

What are the views of other parties on the EMA? We know where the SNP stands on it, as I have just said. The views of their Westminster friends, the Conservatives, are not dissimilar. The Leader of the Opposition has previously refused to give a straight answer on the EMA, notably during a Sky interview in 2007. Things looked briefly hopeful two weeks ago when he was pushed to answer on whether he was committed to the EMA and responded that he was. However, it did not take long for that to change: only last week, I am informed, when the shadow Minister responsible for the matter, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), was asked about it by the NUS's Shane Chowen at an event on further education, he responded that it was

I guess that should come as no surprise, as previously the Conservative party and those on the right have held a highly negative view of the EMA.

Only last year in the House, the shadow schools Minister, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), described the EMA as a "fiasco". The shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has described it as doing

Furthermore, the shadow Children, Schools and Families Secretary, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), has even called the EMA a "flop". If they had done their homework, they would have known about its success.

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It is also important to mention the views of those who influence the policy of Opposition parties. Right-wing think-tanks have been even more disparaging about the EMA in the past year. Policy Exchange, a favourite think-tank of the Leader of the Opposition, called for the EMA to be axed in its publication "Schools Funding and Social Justice". There is not much justice for students there. Reform, another favourite of the Conservative Front Bench, advocates scrapping the scheme, telling The Guardian last year that

Perhaps if it asked the students who receive EMAs and their parents it would get a different answer. Two other influential groups on the right, the Institute of Directors and the TaxPayers' Alliance, called for the EMA to be axed late last year in their joint document "How to save £50 billion".

If we want a better barometer for the feelings of Opposition parties, we should look at their lack of support for my early-day motion 422. More than 80 Members have signed that early-day motion, but only one Conservative and three Liberals are among them. I wonder which party really cares about the education of young people.

In conclusion, I have to ask some questions of all those connected with the EMA-I know that the Minister cannot answer for Opposition parties, but hopefully when their spokespeople read the debate they will write to me with their answers. Why would Opposition parties want to stop people from low-income families staying in education? What are their real motives and plans for the EMA? Why can they not commit to the EMA scheme? No ifs, no buts, just commit to it. What will the Minister do to take into consideration the concerns of those student leaders worried about the financial loss that will be incurred by the removal of the bonuses in 2011? Does he agree with me that, because of the EMA's importance to students from low-income families, it should be supported beyond 2011? I look forward to hearing from him and to the correspondence from Opposition leaders.

1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Iain Wright): May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Lady Winterton? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) on securing the debate-I hope that his cough gets better soon. He has hit the nail on the head in the debate, as the education maintenance allowance is an important and often overlooked aspect of education policy.

I would hardly accuse my hon. Friend of overlooking the issue, though; he is renowned in the House and elsewhere for his passion for social justice, and he has been incredibly energetic in campaigning in support of EMA, both in the House and elsewhere. He referred in his excellent speech to his early-day motion 422, which has been signed by more than 80 hon. Members. I would like to pay tribute to his work on that matter.

I think that my hon. Friend would agree that we all want young people in this country to be able to go on to further education, regardless of where they live, their
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background or their family income. There is, and has been for many decades, a direct correlation between household income and participation rates in education and training post-16. Those from low and middle-income households have often been deterred from going on to college because they simply could not afford it. They could not afford to pay for things such as equipment or transport, and EMA has helped to start to break that link. It is clear, therefore, that EMA has had a huge-arguably unprecedented-impact on students of this country, with regard to participation and attainment.

We know that EMA works. It was subject to one of the most extensive and robust evaluations of any education initiative ever undertaken in England. The allowances have helped raise participation, retention and attainment of qualifications among young people, particularly from lower-income households. Evaluation from the pilots found that EMA was successful in raising participation by about 4 per cent., and attainment by between 2 and 2.5 per cent. Since the EMA pilots, participation in full-time education has risen markedly year on year for 16 to 17-year-olds.

It is fair to say that we have to look at other forces that might also be at work in that regard; it is difficult to pinpoint a specific policy and say, "That is the reason for increased participation." However, it is true that EMA was the largest single policy initiative specifically designed to raise post-16 participation in that period, and it has been hugely significant in allowing young people to gain the skills that they need. It remains an important and necessary part of the offer that we provide to young people.

About 45 per cent. of 16 to 18-year-old learners in full-time education currently receive EMA. As of the week beginning 18 January last month, almost 600,000 young people had received an EMA payment. That is almost 80,000 more than at the same time last year. That huge increase will have a positive impact on skills levels for people in this country for decades to come.

I could talk about hundreds of thousands of people and the billions of pounds that we have invested in learning for 16 to 18-year-olds, but it actually comes down to individual lives and individual young people being given opportunities. One example that sticks in my mind is that of a young man named Jordan, a catering student from Bolton, who now works for one of Britain's most renowned seafood chefs. On receiving his EMA, he said:

There are hundreds of thousands of people like Jordan across the country who could testify in the same way.

John Robertson: That is a good example. Would my hon. Friend agree with me that that money also gives stability to people who perhaps did not attend school regularly? The small incentive that they receive for attending further education puts them in good stead for the future. They will, in effect, have been to work in further education and will have that background when they go into employment in future.

Mr. Wright: I will answer that in two ways. First, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend; he also touched on the point in his speech. EMA is not a handout, as it
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offers something for something. There are recognised and agreed standards for behaviour, attendance and punctuality, which are all important in order to receive the EMA. In modern life, business depends on that maturity, and EMA can help to inject that level of maturity for 16 to 17-year-olds. Secondly, he is absolutely right that it gives that degree of certainty, which, for those from fluctuating, low-income households, can really mean the difference between staying on in college and not going to college and ending up with lower prospects for the future.

In a nutshell, that was why we introduced an EMA guarantee. It means that learners who have had a successful household income assessment are guaranteed the same level of EMA for up to three years. As my hon. Friend said, the guarantee provides young people from lower income groups with an assurance of financial support while they undertake further education. Such an assurance can be important, because it enables young people to have certainty about what support they can receive as they progress in 16-to-19 learning.

I hope that I have made it clear that the EMA has helped more and more students to take part in further education and training. However, it was right and proper for my hon. Friend to probe and question the Government and other parties on the future of the policy, so I want to take this opportunity to outline where I see the EMA going in terms of the future of our ambitious reforms to support more students to take similar paths in their education.

Let me be frank. I do not agree with the Opposition's policies on this matter. As my hon. Friend said, the EMA is a devolved matter. Scotland and Wales will come up with their own policies on it, but I do not agree with what is being done in Scotland. Some of the examples and illustrations that my hon. Friend gave really concern me. People from lower and middle-income households will be deprived of the chance to stay on in school, college or training from the age of 16 onwards. That is not what this Government want, and I heartily disapprove of such a policy.

I am not entirely certain about this, but I believe that the Conservatives wish to abolish the EMA. As my hon. Friend said, the shadow Minister for Schools and Learners, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), has gone on record as saying that it is a fiasco. The shadow Children, Schools and Families Secretary, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), said that it is a flop. The Leader of the Opposition, who rarely mentions 16-to-18 policy at all, stated to the Young Foundation:

on the EMA.

We give 16-to-18 education more importance and certainty than that, so let me give my hon. Friend a straight answer: we will invest a total of £8.2 billion in 2010-11 to fund learning for an unprecedented 1.6 million young people, and we will increase funding for 16-to-19 learning by 0.9 per cent. in real terms, in both 2011-12 and 2012-13, to allow us to continue our commitment to the September guarantee, which guarantees a place in college or training for 16 to 17-year-olds. That reflects the importance that this Government attach to the whole issue of 14-to-19 education. Our ambition is for
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every young person aged 16 to 17 to participate in education and training, thereby building the skills and qualifications that they need to succeed.

My hon. Friend touched on another important point. I can understand the risks and concerns in respect of our historic commitment to raise the participation age, which has been talked about in this country for more than a century. We will raise it first to 17 in 2013 and then to 18 in 2015.

How will that impact on EMA? Again, my hon. Friend was right to mention this, so let me give a straight answer and be very clear. Some young people will always need support, financial or otherwise, to participate in and take advantage of the wide range of potential learning opportunities out there. Once the participation age is raised, young people will still have the option to work full time, as long as they continue to participate in learning part time. We must ensure that their learning choices are not hampered or constrained purely because of their economic or financial circumstances.

Let me be as blunt as I can in reiterating a phrase that my hon. Friend used: no ifs, no buts. We will continue the EMA when the participation age is raised. It has helped more young people than ever in the history of our country to stay on in learning, and it will continue to be important in the future. The fact is that this Government remain absolutely committed to safeguarding EMA.

My hon. Friend, whose contribution to this debate was balanced, mentioned his concern and the concern of others about the ending of bonuses as part of the EMA offer by January 2011. We will not shy away from taking tough decisions in order to support the participation of even greater numbers of young people. The savings that the ending of bonuses will produce, alongside
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additional investment announced in the Budget and pre-Budget report, will mean that an extra 80,000 learners will be able to claim EMA from 2010-11.

I have to be blunt with my hon. Friend: evidence has shown that the bonus payment was often viewed as some kind of reward-something that, obviously, was nice to have, but not as essential as the weekly payment for participation in learning. The weekly payment, whether £10, £20 or £30, is the key factor in allowing people to stay on in education and learning, whereas the bonus was often used for social expenditure, for buying mobile phones, iPods and so on. It was only occasionally used as a contribution to term-time costs. It is difficult to generalise, I cannot mention specific circumstances and I have had letters clearly stating that that is not the case. However, we have to look at the wider context of other offers and other help, support and assistance such as child benefit and tax credits, and at the increase in the discretionary learner support fund that we have provided to help and support young people in college who find themselves in difficult financial circumstances.

I would like to thank my hon. Friend for this opportunity to debate an important but often overlooked aspect of policy. I know that he wants to ensure that students get the support that they need to go into further education or training, without financial matters being a barrier. I am committed to ensuring that the EMA will continue to give crucial support to the students who need it the most-no ifs, no buts. I hope that I have demonstrated our clear commitment to EMA and to ensuring that people from lower and middle-income households continue to receive it. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend about the Opposition's response.

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): As both the Member concerned and the Minister are here, we can start the next debate a few minutes early.

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Schools Funding (Cornwall)

1.27 pm

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): Thank you, Lady Winterton. It is nice to get the leeway of a few extra minutes. That is very welcome.

I want to speak about an issue that has been of great significance to me for the 23 years that I have been a Member of Parliament: delivery of education of the best quality possible in our schools in Cornwall. The context now is one of severe funding constraints that are partly historic and that partly look forward to the realities of the likely impacts of the credit crunch and deficits on spending in the next spending round, particularly on the capital side. The Government, whoever may be in power, will have to deal with that, and with how those constraints are filtering down to create pressures in Cornwall right now. A review of schools has been initiated that may lead to the closure of smaller schools in particular.

In terms of funding per pupil place in school each year, Cornwall is the 141st worst-funded local education authority in England, right down at the bottom of the list. Alongside it are similar poorer rural communities in Devon, Somerset and other places across the country. I share the strong sense that the present funding system does not adequately address the needs of rural communities; in particular, it does not adequately address the needs of the poorer and most disadvantaged rural communities, where poverty can be intermingled with apparent wealth, and where it exists in what most people regard as extremely pleasant surroundings. That does not make things any easier for individual families or for the schools.

My village school at St. Dennis does an absolutely fabulous job in all respects, but, like Whitemoor and Roche schools up the road, it has to cope with an intake of very disadvantaged children who need all kinds of special support. It has to deliver that in the context of much lower funding than that delivered in urban deprived communities. Cornwall council has just initiated a review of primary schools, the implicit threat being that a number of schools potentially face closure, partly in the name of tackling surplus places and high cost, although I am sure that that will be described in terms of the quality of educational opportunity offered to children.

I want to challenge the Minister to make a solid commitment to improving funding for the rural, disadvantaged communities that I am talking about, and I do so only too well aware of the financial context. More importantly, I recognise that village schools cannot be properly valued by a simplistic model that attaches so much emphasis to surplus places across a local education authority. One core reason for that is that, in a community with a large number of small schools, a large number of surplus places overall may not correspond to many empty seats in any one school.

It is not possible to rearrange the provision of education in a rural setting in the way that that is possible in an urban setting, where it might be easy for children to go to another school: if one school closes, another will be near on hand. In rural areas, the closure of a village school is devastating for the children and the community, because it often means a lengthy bus trip, at best, to a school that is relatively remote and it often means the heart being ripped out of the community.

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