Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Government’s attack on Education

I recently spoke out in a debate in Westminster on the Government’s decision to cut support for helping students into education.

The Government’s decision to axe the Educational Maintenance Allowance has demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the challenges that young people from poorer backgrounds face. Cutting EMA combined with the decision to treble Tuition Fees will only make getting into further education harder for young people across this country.

You can see my contribution to the debate below.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing the debate. I shall try to keep my comments brief, because I know that others wish to speak.

The discretionary learners support fund is a mere 13% of the money provided under the educational maintenance allowance. Do the Government estimate that the number of people in need of financial support through further education is only 13% of what it once was or are Members arguing, as has been suggested, that youngsters will still go to college, but they will go impoverished?

Nearly 19,000 students in Lancashire rely on the EMA to give families the financial flexibility that allows them to continue to study. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), who is no longer in his place, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), noted that students in receipt of EMA outperformed other students-by 7% in Sefton and 6% in Hull East, I think. In areas such as my constituency, the EMA often means the difference between going on to further study and not doing so.

Stephen Carlisle, the principal of Accrington and Rossendale college, which is our local college, told me that he is expecting a big drop in numbers. He believes the withdrawal of the EMA

"will impact on the ability of poorer students to go to college".

The college will have to use its already stretched budget to help those disadvantaged students because, as Mr Carlisle said:

"We can't cast them aside and just educate those who can afford to go".

The experience in the college reflects the comments of a lot of other principals; it is not only Mr Carlisle who is expressing that opinion, and when it comes from the educational establishment, I think we should listen.

I could suggest that, in reality, the figure set aside for the new fund was plucked out of thin air and does not reflect any proven need. One might go as far as to say that it is nothing more than a token attempt to ease the pain of taking money from those who need it. However, this is just one part of a wider attack on education. If the Government are so keen to show adherence to the Browne report, why are they ignoring one of its main recommendations-the increase in university participation by 10%-by scrapping a policy that has been shown to increase attendance?

Even by the estimate, which the Government accepted, of the National Foundation for Educational Research, the EMA accounted for 12% of those who attended university. They are people who otherwise may not have gone. The trebling of tuition fees has already made meeting Lord Browne's 10% increase in participation unlikely, and scrapping the EMA will make it extremely difficult.

Government Members ask what the alternative is; I think the alternative is simple. The cuts are too fast, too deep and they go too far, as we, on this side of the House, have stated. That is a basis for rejecting the proposal. To sum up, the discretionary learners support fund is a token attempt to give a facelift to a counter-intuitive policy.

You can view the debate in full here: