EMA study grant changes 'poorly executed', say MPs
An MPs' committee has attacked the way the government has brought in cuts to Education Maintenance Allowance grants for poor 16-19 year olds in England.
The Education Select Committee said the changes left this year's 15-16 year olds unable to make informed choices and questioned the replacement scheme.
The body's Conservative chairman said students deserved better than "rushed and ill-thought through reforms".
The government said the MPs recognised its reasons for closing the scheme.
The £560m EMA scheme provided means-tested grants of up to £30 a week to help young people on low incomes to stay on at school or college.
The government announced in October that it would be scrapped, arguing that the policy was expensive and could be better focused on the poorest students.
But ministers did not give details until March of the £180m replacement bursary fund, which is to be allocated by colleges, at their discretion.
The funding allocations for individual colleges were not made until June.
This was "far too late to allow Year 11 students to make fully informed decisions" about courses starting next academic year, the MPs said.
"That delay was regrettable and should not have been allowed to happen," the report said.
The MPs said they accepted that changes to the grants were "inevitable", given the cost of the scheme and the fact that education or training to the age of 18 is to become compulsory by 2015.
But they said they were "not persuaded" that a strong enough case had been made for distributing the reduced pot of student support funding as discretionary bursaries.
The bursary scheme "will inevitably lead to inconsistencies which could distort young people's choices of where to study," the committee said.
The Department for Education should have conducted an "earlier, more public assessment" of the options for better targeting of student support, the report said.
The MPs also noted that the government's argument that 90% of EMA recipients would have continued in education without the grants was apparently based on a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research.
Its lead author, Dr Thomas Spielhofer, told the committee the findings had been "misinterpreted".
The MPs said the government should have done more to acknowledge the effect of EMAs on factors such as raising student attainment and lowering drop-out rates, particularly among disadvantaged groups.
"We would have welcomed a more measured and public analysis by the government before it reached its decision to abolish EMA," the MPs wrote.
The select committee's chairman, the Conservative MP Graham Stuart, said: "Young people taking life-defining decisions at 16 need clear information on the support they may receive and deserve better than rushed and ill-thought through reforms.
"We accept that changes and savings need to be made but the organisation of the change has been far from smooth," he said.
'Truly bad decision'
A spokesman for the Department for Education said it was "pleased" the committee "acknowledges the Government's rationale for closing the very expensive and centralised EMA scheme".
The decision was "based on thorough analysis of all the available evidence" and it was "right to put money in the hands of heads and college principals, who know their pupils best", the spokesman said.
The University and College Union, which backed protests against the EMA cuts, said it was pleased the MPs had "acknowledged the complete mess the government has made of the EMA".
"Ever since the government started cherry-picking research to drive through the end of the EMA it has been clear to us that thousands of the country's poorest teenagers would suffer," said its general secretary, Sally Hunt.
James Mills, head of the Save EMA campaign, said: "It is a sad day to see a cross party committee of MPs pretty much confirm what everyone seems to know in this country - except the government and Michael Gove - that scrapping EMA was a truly bad decision."