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Better off in bed?

‘I’d be better off in bed’ was a comment I heard from one of the learners at PM Training as he sat reading the newspaper the day after the vote to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance – EMA.

I asked the learner if he was serious in his comment. He replied that not in the sense that he would leave the foundation learning programme as he could see how what we did gave him a great opportunity to secure an apprenticeship, but he reflected that for him and many like him it is true that they will be financially worse off attending training than they would be as a Neet.

PM Training is based in Stoke-on-Trent and used to have one of the highest rates of young people not in education, employment or training (Neet).  Indeed Stoke was a pilot for trailing EMA, which was seen as a means to encourage young people from deprived backgrounds stay on in education and training after 16.

Since its introduction there has been a significant decrease in the Neet figures in our area; although we remain above national averages. Of course this may not be wholly linked to the introduction of EMA, but I’m sure that this is a strong correlation.

At PM Training, well over 70% of the 300 or so 16-17 year olds who take part on the foundation learning programme were entitled to EMA following a means test. Dependent on their parents’ income learners are entitled to claim £10, £20 or £30 per week. This is not in addition to any other state benefit, the EMA is it. The allowance can be used however the learner sees fit but it is intended that it covers course equipment, travel and transport.

Of the 300 or so learners who join our programme, 75% come to us with a numeracy or literacy age of 9 or below. The vast majority are from deprived areas and many simply have not had the best start in life.

Despite these entry levels, we are able to work with the young people and obtain some pretty amazing results. Last year 95% of our learners who positively progressed from the programme went onto a full time apprenticeship….a job with ongoing training.

One of core reasons, we are told, for scrapping EMA is that it is poorly targeted and that 90% of young people receiving EMA would continue in education if the grant were stopped. However it is equally telling when references made by ministers and government departments state that you cannot spend money you haven’t got, and EMA is hugely expensive.  It seems therefore losing EMA is also there to save money.

With respect to the poor targeting of EMA, I examined how much a bus pass is in the city as this is how most of our learners travel. The cost is around £17 and no doubt is set to rise with the ongoing fuel price increases.

So if this facility isn’t there how will learners travel to the training centre? It’s not simply a question of going to the bank of mum or dad when for many either mum or dad is not part of their lives or indeed the bank is empty.

A few days later, I had the sheer joy of listing to a young apprentice who was a PM learner and now works for the Aspire Group. You could have heard a pin drop when he addressed over 200 colleagues and in his very first slide referred to the fact that when he was in class 4 at school his dad died and his mum became an alcoholic. He left school with no real qualifications and yet is now a business administration apprentice and is achieving great things…truly inspirational.

He made reference to the EMA payment he received and posed the rhetorical question of what he would be doing with his life if it were not for PM training and the Aspire Group. Of course no one knows the answer, but without the EMA allowance to enable him to travel I can think of many less positive paths that he may now be treading.

EMA is to be replaced by something called a Discretionary Support Fund worth around £100m compared to £500m for EMA. And guess what? It looks like each training organisation will administer its own funds abiding by the eligibility criteria that the providers themselves set.

As one of the country’s leading social enterprises I know we will be seeking to do all that we can to minimise the effect the loss of EMA has on our learners, for surely bed cannot be their best option.

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