A Choice Too Far: EMA Reforms in England Will Force Teachers to Ration Funding, Argues Laura Mclnerney

Article excerpt

If you could prolong the education of just one person, who would you choose: a straight-A student with a talent for science, or an academically average student from a poor family who cares for two sick parents and may end up being the breadwinner for her younger siblings before the age of 20? Given the chance, the talented scientist will likely become a doctor or, at the very least, still succeed in life. The young carer is unlikely to make it to university, but without qualifications the likelihood of her getting a job to support her family is also worryingly low. It's not a choice any teacher should face, but from September we will.

For the past decade, every young person in education after the age of 16 could apply for the Education Maintenance Allowance - a means-tested cash benefit. At present, just under half a million young people receive the full amount of [pounds sterling] 30 a week because their annual family income is less than [pounds sterling] 20, 817.

The latest Education Bill has scrapped EMA in England and replaced it with a fund, given to schools to cover cases of "hardship". How the money will be divvied up among the school's neediest, and what conditions must be met to receive it, are entirely at the school's discretion, but an individual can only receive a maximum [pounds sterling] 800 - two-thirds of the current allowance.

How can schools decide who is most deserving of this money? Recently I. taught a gifted student who secured a place studying medicine at a top university. Shortly before his GCSE exams, the school's education welfare officer noticed his erratic pattern of absences. During a home visit she discovered that the student and his 14-year-old brother were alternating days at school because they had only one pair of school trousers to share between them. Their mother could not afford another pair until the end of the month, and so had desperately planned their absences to ensure that neither missed any one lesson too often.

A mother going to such lengths will not approach a school with a begging bowl to ask for hardship funds, nor should she be asked to do so. Even if she did overcome her embarrassment, whom might she be pitted against?

In the UK, more than 175,000 children care for their parents and over half live in one-parent households. Working in inner-city schools, I have taught several students caring for terminally ill parents. Sibling guardians are rarely provided with financial support, as they fall outside the eligibility criteria of local authorities. …