The educational maintenance allowance

John Freeman
Thursday, April 9, 2015

Over the weekend I was reminded of one of the most egregious of Michael Gove's early actions as Secretary of State – the scrapping of the educational maintenance allowance (EMA). This provided invaluable support to the young people at college who needed it most, for everything from food to equipment.

Remembering that free school meals apply to school sixth forms and not colleges just makes the need for the EMA more apparent. I was working across the LGA and the Department for Schools and Families and Department for Education on 16 to 18 policy implementation over the period of the election and into the early months of the coalition, and I can well remember the shock we all felt at the time. And as a governor of Dudley College at the time, I recall well the award-winning national campaign by the Student Union in a vain attempt to keep the EMA. But memories are short, and the EMA has passed into history – but, in so doing, has disadvantaged many thousands of young people.

What brought this to mind was a profile in The Observer of Malaika Firth, a model, who was born in Kenya and brought up in Barking in East London. Her father worked as a French polisher in a hotel. Her words about her first-hand experiences of growing up in Barking are more eloquent than mine could be, and I'll quote them directly:

"We weren't poor, but there wasn't a lot of money. I shared a room with my sister and auntie. I struggled getting by in school, with £2 for my lunch. When the EMA came out I was so excited – £20 a month! I appreciate everything that has happened."

At the time, the public justifications for scrapping the EMA were that young people would spend it on cigarettes and alcohol ... and no doubt some did. But, as I've said often before, just imagine for yourself trying to do a day's work or learning when you are hungry ... or having to make the choice between buying books or eating. The EMA was an important innovation and it made a real difference – and ending it was disastrous for many, not just over the last four years, but for a lifetime.

We must invest in all our young people to help them learn – learning is never a bad investment, for individuals or the nation.

John Freeman CBE is a former director of children's services and is now a freelance consultant