The claim

“The decision to replace the EMA with a far more cost-effective and targeted scheme was not made on the back of one survey.”
Department for Education spokesman

The background

The Government’s decision to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance in January brought thousands of teenagers onto the streets in protest.

Labour had introduced the scheme to encourage school leavers from deprived backgrounds to stay in education or training, handing out payments of £10-30 a week to 16-19-year-olds who signed up to courses.

But the Education Secretary Michael Gove insisted the grant had been “poorly targeted”. To back that up, Ministers seized on a statistic which suggested that 88 per cent of claimants would have stayed in education anyway, even if they hadn’t received the payment.

Now the author of the study quoted by the Government has accused them of “misinterpreting” his research. Thomas Spielhofer said he was unhappy that a major change in Government policy had apparently been inspired by his work. FactCheck got to work.

The analysis

Launching the successor to EMA in March, the Department for Education said: “Robust evaluation evidence from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) showed around 90 per cent of those who received EMA would have carried on their education without it.”

The statistic emanates from this research paper, based on a survey of 2,029 students, 838 of whom said they were claiming EMA. Asked if they would have carried on in education if they hadn’t got the payment, 88 per cent of those 838 young people said yes and 12 per cent said no.

Giving evidence to the Education Select Committee, Mr Spielhofer cast doubt on whether that really meant that 88 per cent of the payments were “deadweight” – or failing to achieve the policy’s intended goal of encouraging the most deprived to carry on in education.

He pointed out that his study was not about EMA and only one of the questions in the survey was related to it.

Mr Spielhofer told MPs: “You can say for 88 per cent that was wasted money. But I don’t actually see it that way. I think it’s been misinterpreted in that sense.

“It will include some young people for whom actually it probably didn’t make any difference whatsoever, but it also probably includes young people who actually find this is a constraint, but actually in some sense it shows resilience.

“It actually shows that they are so committed to their education and training that the finance wouldn’t have stopped them from doing that. But the percentage of that we don’t know because that was not the focus of the study.”

The Department for Education insists it looked at other research too when making the decision, quoting four more surveys in an answer to a Parliamentary Question on the subject.

Those studies also asked students whether they would have carried on in education in the absence of EMA, and their answers were far more complex than the 88 per cent figure Ministers preferred to focus on.

A study of 1,500 respondents commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council found that 34 per cent said they definitely would carry on without EMA, and 6 per cent definitely wouldn’t. Some 33 per cent answered “probably”, leading the researchers to point to “a reasonably high degree of deadweight” of 67 per cent.

Another paper by York Consulting found that 78 per cent (46 students out of a small sample of 59) said they would still have signed up to courses without EMA, but 30 per cent of those said they would also have had to earn more money at the same time. Ten per cent said they would have quit and got a job instead.

Market researchers RCU reported that only 6 per cent of the 2,000 students they polled said they would not have stayed in learning without the EMA, but 42 per cent said that they would have still applied but would have needed to earn more money. Only 45 per cent said scrapping EMA would have made no difference to them.

And Ipsos Mori said 15 per cent of those asked would definitely have quit without EMA. Some 33 per cent said they would definitely carry on regardless and the biggest group, 42 per cent, said they would persevere with education but would have to earn more.

So the results are more nuanced than the Government’s stance would suggest. The proportion of students who said they would “definitely” or probably have carried on with education in the absence of financial support ranges between 67 per cent to a high point of 88 per cent. But the higher number has been quoted repeatedly by the Department for Education and conveniently rounded up to “around 90 per cent”.

A significant number said they would have to work longer hours at the same time as studying to make ends meet – something that could affect their academic performance.

And, as FactCheck found in an earlier article, there is serious doubt over whether so-called “deadweight” really equates to a waste of public money.

The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies looked at the EMA last year and found that it had increased participation in education from 65 per cent to 69 per cent among eligible 16-year-olds and from 54 per cent to 61 per cent among 17-year-olds.

While the IFS didn’t dispute that a big percentage of students said they would have carried on without EMA, they found that did not equate to a bad investment, saying: “The costs of providing EMA were likely to be exceeded in the long run by the higher wages that its recipients would go on to enjoy in future.”

How how does that compare with EMA’s successor?

When the Department for Education says the allowance has been replaced with a “far more cost-effective and targeted scheme”, they are talking about the Discretionary Learners’ Support Fund.

That’s a new cash pot of £180 million, compared to the £560 million spent on EMA. Of that, £15 million is reserved for vulnerable children and £165 million will be given to schools and colleges to help support students who they decide are in the greatest need.

The Department told FactCheck: “We trust colleges and schools to distribute it fairly because they know their pupils best.”

But it’s precisely that lack of oversight that makes it difficult to see how Ministers can claim that the new fund is “more cost-effective and targeted”.

The IFS points out that, because the total pot is shrinking, some students will inevitably lose out. Children who are eligible for free school meals will apparently lose out by more than £300 a year, and leaving the decision on who gets the money to schools and colleges “could reduce transparency and certainty”.

The verdict

Mr Spielhofer clearly doesn’t like the way he has unwittingly provided ammunition for the Government’s education cuts agenda, although we should point out that his study does state as a “policy implication” that: “EMAs should be targeted at those young people who feel that they cannot continue in learning without financial support.”

The Department for Education is right to say that it didn’t rely on just one study when it decided to scrap EMA, but it does appear that the Government has cherry-picked one statistic from the literature that supports its stance.

The thing that tips their claim over into “fiction” territory is the assertion that the EMA’s successor is “more cost-effective and targeted”. We know that independent experts have done a cost/benefit analysis of EMA and concluded that it does not represent a waste of money.

But by handing responsibility to schools and colleges, the Government cannot be sure that its replacement will see the funding go to the right people.

By Patrick Worrall