The claim
“£180m will be available for this bursary fund – enough to ensure that every child eligible for free school meals who chooses to stay on could be paid £800 per year – more than many receive under the current EMA arrangements”.
Michael Gove MP, Education Secretary, announcing the replacement EMA scheme in the House of Commons, March 28, 2011

Cathy Newman checks it out

David Cameron’s decision to scrap the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has saved him money but cost him political capital. In opposition, he said he supported the £30-a-week allowance for 16 to 19 year olds.

But once in Government he changed his mind, despite claims the scheme encouraged students to stay on in education. This week, the government attempted to make the best of a bad job, setting out plans for a £180m ‘bursary’ – that’s £380m less than the original EMA.  But did the Education Secretary get his sums right?

The analysis

David Cameron promised to replace the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) “with something more effective” in December. And given that Mr Cameron himself applauded the scheme in the run-up to the election, FactCheck was intrigued to find out how he planned to better it.

Now we know: the Government’s replacing the previous £560m fund with a new £180m bursary scheme – doling out less money to fewer students.

Michael Gove insists that it is a more targeted scheme helping the “most vulnerable” teens to get ahead.

The £180m will be split – with £15m reserved for annual grants of £1,200 for the vulnerable (16-19 year olds who are in care, are care leavers or on income support). And the remaining £165m will be put in a “discretionary pot” for schools and colleges to allocate as they see fit.

Discrepancies with discretion

The Education Secretary says the £165m discretionary fund will be enough “to ensure that every child eligible for free school meals who chooses to stay on could be paid £800 per year – more than many receive under the current EMA arrangements”.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) takes issue.  Free meals are available to under-16s with a family income of less than £16,000. So if you’re being fed for free now, when you turn 16 you’ll be eligible for the maximum EMA allowance. This is currently £1,170 a year, which works out as £30 a week in a school year of 39 weeks.

“To get free school meals, their household income would have to be less than around £16,190, which would also make them eligible for the full EMA award. In other words they would be, on average, £370 worse off than under the current arrangements”, Haroon Chowdry, senior research economist at the IFS, told FactCheck.

Challenging Mr Gove yesterday, Labour MP Emily Thornberry said: “The remaining students, whose parents receive income support or got free school meals, will now only be eligible to apply for a maximum of £800 in support – cutting the support for these students by a third and creating a new classification of the poor.”

In fact, it could be worse. The Department for Education could only explain the £800 figure to FactCheck as “an example of how the money might be distributed” – it is not a set amount, they are still consulting on it.

Better deal for the poorest

Mr Gove also rather over-egged the windfall for the “most vulnerable” sixth formers.

He claimed that:  “12,000 students, those in care, care leavers and those receiving income support – should in future all receive an annual bursary of £1,200 if they stay on in education – more every year than they ever received under EMA.”

Technically, he’s right. They’ll receive 77p a week more to be exact. Which won’t even buy you two pints of milk in Tescos (that’ll be 86p).

The new scheme guarantees £1,200 for those 12,000 “most vulnerable” – or 2 per cent of those currently receiving EMA – delivering a £30 annual bonus, which works out as 77p extra each school week.

Announcing the scheme yesterday however, Mr Gove drew fire from Labour’s Andy Burnham – who reasoned that the EMA was “a successful scheme praised by the Institute for Fiscal Studies”.

Mr Burnham told FactCheck today: “Yesterday’s announcement cuts the scheme by two-thirds and does not improve it – and leaves hundreds of thousands of young people in the dark. Two per cent of young people who were getting EMA have some guarantees – but 588,000 have no idea what support they might get. In typical Gove fashion, as with school sport, he has taken a successful scheme – applauded by the IFS – and turned it into a shambles. It’s always the same – snap decisions, no consultation and no grip on the detail.”

Previous IFS research did show that the £560m cost was “completely offset” by the benefits to the economy from this small number of students.

Sally Copley from Save the Children UK added: “Michael Gove’s announcement will help some children but the majority, including from the poorest homes, will still experience a substantial cut.”

Cathy Newman’s verdict

It seems Michael Gove might need to return to the class-room to brush up on his maths.

The extra 77p a week the most vulnerable will get is barely enough to keep them in pencils and pens – let alone buy a bus fare.

And as for the Education Secretary’s suggestion that every child eligible for free school meals could be better off than now – really, he must try harder.

The Analysis by Emma Thelwell