EMA- bite the hand off a handout

I started a bit of an office debate yesterday on EMA; Education Maintenance Allowance, because of my delight at the recent/potential reforms. Firstly, a little disclaimer- I’m somewhat politically naive and ignorant, so anyone quoting policy, or bureaucratic nuances below is wasting their energy.

I wholeheartedly agree with the developments because of my own personal experience with the EMA system, having seen its benefits and failings first-hand.

Mainly failings.

So, you’re probably thinking, what right does a political novice have to blog on a political issue? Well, every right as it’s framed in the context of recent, real-life experience.

In sixth form we were told EMA was for people whose household income was less than £30k  (or something like that). I didn’t qualify, but wasn’t really arsed as I had started a part time job the summer previous. Of course, if I was eligible, I would have bitten the bursary’s hand off, but my job would provide me with more. £30 a week might come in handy, but I liked (and still do) to live a varied, sociable lifestyle, and £30 just isn’t sufficient.

It was made clear at our school, that people who were eligible for EMA would only get it on the condition they had 100% attendance; in effect an incentive to come in. Hold on, doesn’t that detract from what a fund like this should be for? Shouldn’t it be unconditional; for those less well off, who genuinely want to be there and learn, and not just to pick up a packet for showing up? There’s something inherently corrupt about being ‘paid’ to learn. First failing with the system.

Anyway so, some of the people that got EMA were, and are my best mates, and many didn’t have jobs. Why? Because, while they could have more money by working, it wasn’t worth it as £30 at the end of the week ‘would do’. Why should I work, when others don’t have to? I didn’t mind though- you reap what you sow. Second failing.

I also knew people, who’s parents were very, very wealthy but had retired or worked under ‘different’ circumstances and these people still received EMA. This shows the EMA vetting process to be so lax, it’s laughable. Third failing.

What does knowing that there’s some easy, free dosh waiting for you at the end of the week do to personal drive? It creates a mindset that expects, not one that intends.

Many of the people I encountered spent the money on drink and revelry. Fourth failing.

I heard EMA costs taxpayers something in the region of £560million a year- WTF?! That’s absolutely astronomical! In light of my account above, just imagine how that money could be better spent. A reformed fund system could be designed and implemented for those who both need and want it most, but with much tighter screening, and selection. This would not only save money, but would ensure that people who were most in need and those with true desire to learn would get the help they needed to realise their potential. And money wouldn’t be wasted, or smoked or drank.

Don’t just take it from me, have a gander at this perspective HERE and HERE on EMA from someone who received it. Case closed.

I realise I’ve made some broad generalisations in this post, but it’s just what I saw. Maybe what I experienced was the result of this country becoming a welfare state? What do you think? Any other experiences?


6 thoughts on “EMA- bite the hand off a handout

  1. If we’re debating EMA in light of personal experience, then we’ve had wildly different experiences of it! Many students while I was at 6th form spent all of their EMA on bus fare alone, and had weekend jobs in order to keep themselves fed as their parents couldn’t afford to. A couple of people at 6th form desperately needed EMA but weren’t entitled to it, as their parents were slightly over the income threshhold despite massive personal debt and no disposable income on which to support them. So basically, around 30% of my year wouldn’t have been able to get an A level education without EMA.

    Regarding your point that a failing of this system is that it rewards you for showing up, what do you expect? A system is hardly going to hand out money to you to enable you to study, without ensuring first that you attend.

    Finally, very few people I knew spent it on drunkenness and revelry. If we’re arguing from this standpoint, then university students shouldn’t be entitled to student loans …

    Respectfully, I disagree.

  2. I have to say, I agree with everything said in this post. I know it all depends on your experiences of the people you see, and all your reasons are not true in some cases. But as you say, the majority of people that benefit from EMA do not utilize it wisely, and in the way that was intended and there are major flaws in the system.

    Also, another point to note is that compulsory education has been increased to the age of 18 for a couple of generations below the current 6th form / college age. This means, if EMA was still in place, the Government would be funding people to attend further education when it is compulsory anyway.

    Note to Ink Magazine, just because that was your experience, it does not mean that is true of the whole population. You have made valid points, and I do believe some people do need additional help, but just handing out money isn’t the most cost effective way of going about it.



  3. The two comments you’ve already had illustrate very well why you can’t rely on anecdotal evidence or ‘experience’ as you’ve got two both of which support opposite sides of the argument. The fact is that there are many families where the idea of using the EMA to finance socialising would be an impossibility, it’s needed simply to survive. Just because it’s going to go some people who are not in such dire need doesn’t detract from the good that it does. There is also a powerful argument that it’s actually a cost saving as the young people who’ve stayed on to strengthen their education are far more likely to get jobs that those that don’t and this continues throughout their life. That can equal a massive saving over a longer period as you look at what range of other benefits would have been paid.

  4. Hi all,

    Thanks for your comments, and taking the time to join this debate; one that’s quite unusual for my blog 🙂

    @Ink Magazine- You make some very valid points, and as you astutely point out; this post was to highlight personal experience. The fact that you say some people needed EMA but were unable to get it because their parents were slightly over the threshold makes the case for a more refined, bespoke vetting and application process doesn’t it?

    In regards to the system ‘rewarding’ you for showing up, well yes that is what you would expect as a precursor. But in time, I saw these people coming to 6th form just to get the money, with being there to learn becoming secondary.

    Almost everyone I knew at college used it for revelry; after all I found it was these two years that most people discovered nightclubs, bars etc.

    And yes, you could argue against any policy involving the disbursement of money, as it’s almost impossible to predict or even track how exactly it’ll be spent. I realise this is slightly contradictory, but maybe then, the EMA money could be pre-spent specifically on bus passes, and then extra food and books at school?

    @Faye- It’s interesting that we had similar(ish) experiences. In the way you point out to Ink Magazine: not all of their experiences are true of the whole population; the same can be said of mine, and yours. I’m just intrigued to hear of different experiences of EMA; although in the office at work, and elsewhere I’ve heard accounts closer to what we both found.

    When, as you say the compulsory age of education is changing (I think this is sometime between 2012-15), coupled with the experiences we’ve had of the sloppy vetting process (see here too: http://bit.ly/dXDomJ); then surely some sort of change is needed?

    @Stuart- Yes, you could say anecdotal or personal accounts are unreliable, but surely they hold some validity when many are similar and/or present some congruency. This is what I wanted to find out with this post and my tweet, I wanted to gauge what other people experienced with the EMA system.

    It’s a task that will throw up disparity until the cows come home, but hey; I always find it interesting to hear of other people’s experiences, and relate them to mine.

    I agree that some people will have benefited from the money, but my fundamental gripe was with the system. In some cases, wouldn’t the money be better spent in schools; providing food, books and any other necessary supplements that will ensure people can get the most out of their education when they’re there?

    If families needed that money to survive, then doesn’t that involve a discussion around welfare benefit? A valid point, but not something I know much about, or have experience of.

    Your last point is fascinating and not one that I had thought of. It presents an unusual, resonating perspective on the value of education investment.

    However, maybe certain things need to be altered or improved in order to achieve the savings and amelioration this point suggests?

    We could be here for weeks 😉

    Many thanks again,


  5. Let me just put on my wellington boots before I wade knee-deep into this debate…

    Whilst at sixth form in the mid 2000s, I received £20 a week of EMA in the first year, then £30 a week in the second year. To be perfectly honest with you, not a penny of it was needed. I don’t mean this in an arrogant way as I’m not from a wealthy family with parents earning six figure salaries, but the system is seriously flawed. My parents both used to be teachers up until I finished high school and retired early on their own grounds, thus reducing the household income below the threshold needed to receive EMA. There I was, receiving £80-120 a month of money I didn’t need, whilst the majority of my friends still had parents in full time work and had to work part-time on evenings and weekends to fund their lives outside of sixth form. I was also lucky enough to live far enough away from sixth form (3 miles) to receive a free bus pass, enabling me to spend even more of my free money on non-educational things. After two years of free travel, a social life paid for and no incentive to work, I departed for University.

    Fast forward three years to 2009, to my graduation and my real-world job hunt beginning. More people than ever have gained degrees, the job market is the worst it’s been for decades and my CV has a severe lack of previous employment experience on it; not a good combination.

    After a few months of unemployment and three months of working 45hr weeks unpaid, just to gain experience I should have gained during sixth form, I finally gained paid employment. Working for marginally more than the minimum wage and on a six month contract for just 25hrs a week, I was reaping the harvest of those EMA seeds so unhelpfully sown back in 2004.

  6. Deacon’s (wonderfully written) comment sums up EMA for me.

    The system is flawed. Any system that is haemorrhaging money is a system that needs looking at.

    I support those in dire situations getting help. We live in a welfare state. I’m quite happy to pay taxes to help others in the knowledge that if I ever come into financial difficulty, I will not be left to starve. If I am ever injured, I will not be left to bleed out. However, with any system in which individuals receive support for others will ALWAYS be abused. This isn’t opinion, it is fact. It is how we have evolved (but back to the issue at hand). EMA is a system open to abuse, abuse which I have seen first hand.

    I went to a grammar school (I know I now leave myself open to abuse on this entire issue, but oh well) and I was fortunate enough to never need EMA. Understandably, much of the student population was in the same kind of position as I was. However, a disproportionate number still received EMA. How? There are not enough background checks before our governments start throwing cash at people.

    I saw students with one very well off put the other (divorced) parent on the form = full EMA

    Students with self-employed parent’s ‘fiddling’ with the forms = full EMA

    Just two examples of how easy the system is to mess with.

    Those that support it used the same argument time and time again.

    It’s for ‘traveling’ = means tested bus/train pass

    It’s for ‘books’ = shut up, no one pays for school books unless they attend Eton, at which point the argument is invalid.

    It’s for ‘lunch money’ = oh look, means tested lunch allowances

    Yes, these are solutions that will take time and money to arrange, but I’m guessing it still beats £35.8 million. Per year. A cost which increases every year. Wow.

    I didn’t get hand-outs from my parents at school. I worked 16 hours a week from the age of 17, got lots of experience for my CV, built up my confidence and walked out with A-levels and university offers. If I’d have had £30 a week to spend on whatever I wanted, I question whether things would have gone as well.

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