George Osborne's Budget tomorrow has variously been presented as an opportunity to scrap air duty, national insurance and VAT on petrol. But for thousands of young people from less well off families, its most important feature will be what it does about the Education Maintenance Allowance. Until this year, 16-18 year-olds in full time education with family incomes below £30k a year have had a conditional allowance of up to £30 a week, payable provided they attend school or college and intended to enable them to continue studying after GCSEs. The government has announced that there will no further payments, not even for those young people who started two year courses last September. There will instead be a small discretionary fund expected to be worth around £70m (though this is likely to increase after Simon Hughes's review) to replace the £490m distributed by EMA, of which most goes to young people in the poorest families. And while higher education fees have been the main media focus of student protest, the greatest injustice and potential hinderance to student mobility is the abolition of the EMA.
The irony is that its abolition was only made necessary because the Liberal Democrats insisted that their pupil premium should not lead to a reduction in overall school funding, and the Treasury insisted that the Dept for Education must fund it from within its wider budget. But the EMA is far better targeted than a pupil premium that is likely merely to provide sticking plaster for wider school cuts, and which lacks the same degree of conditionality on the recipient. Truanting or tardy EMA recipients can lose their allowance; there is no sanction as yet proposed for schools that show little to justify their premium.
So, tomorrow's Budget offers Osborne an opportunity on two fronts. The first is to restore the EMA for those students with a reasonable expectation of receiving it for 2011-12, those in the second year of A-level courses for example. If Osborne doesn't make this change, the courts almost certainly will. And I would be astonished if DFE lawyers haven't already reached this conclusion: after all, they made clear that university tuition fees could not apply to existing students when they were first introduced in 1998. The second is to introduce a much more comprehensive replacement to the EMA for new statements. Simon Hughes has certainly been arguing for this, as have many FE colleges. There needs to be enough money to cover the costs of transport, books and learning materials for all students with family incomes below the £20k where the full £30 EMA was currently paid.
Ministers make the argument that the EMA did not significantly increase participation, and that with compulsory staying on coming in from 2013 for 17 year-olds and 2015 for 18 year-olds, the scheme has substantial deadweight costs. But EMA has increased participation, especially among 17 year-olds, as the IFS has shown. More importantly, it has a conditionality that is absent from child benefit for young people over 16. And it creates a sense of responsibility in the young person that is crucial in today's mollycoddled times. Looking at the two benefits in the round together with an increased apprenticeship offer could offer a way out of the funding dilemma, but not without some additional resource for the poorest students. After all, what exactly is the point of introducing a pupil premium for under-16s only to remove an important ladder of opportunity when they reach 16. George Osborne has the chance to put things right in his Budget.