John Stone is chief executive of LSN

We all knew the cuts were coming. The well-trailed and detailed speculation over the reduction in Departmental Expenditure Limits (DEL) had ensured that there was plenty of source material for Finance Directors to model the consequences, and begin to think through the unpalatable options which the New Year would undoubtedly bring.

A few experienced commentators aside, the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowances came out of left field. The shock felt in colleges is all the greater as FE in particularly, has long considered EMA's as the Jewel in its welfare crown. Studies have shown that it has been effective in raising participation and improving student retention and achievement. But in today's austerity Britain it looks expensive and fingers are pointed at the 'deadweight factor' – specifically that most of the recipients of EMA, would participate anyway and most of them would have stayed. So, the argument goes, is the gain worth the pain?

Given this deadweight, when it was announced on 20th October that EMA would stop, to be replaced by 'more targeted support', there were more gasps of surprise than there really should have been – perhaps people should have seen it coming.

If we grudgingly accept for the moment that EMA is gone the question becomes what will the proposed replacement, 'targeted support', add up to and as ever, how can we make the best of a bad job

Recently, a guide to the Spending Review was placed on the DfE's website without fanfare, which included the revelation that schools and colleges would be responsible for administering the replacement to EMA. This brings learner support full-circle, to a time before Labour was elected in 1997, when the Learner Support Fund provided help to those at risk of not being able to afford to study. At that time, however, the fund was tiny compared with the rapid increases under Labour even before the introduction of EMAs.

Colleagues with long memories will recall that the Learner Support Fund began life as a small pot of money, distributed to colleges by the then DfES based on complex criteria which looked at deprivation in a college's catchment area and the size of the college. Five percent of the fund was kept by colleges, who administered the scheme locally. In the early days it was predominantly used to help learners pay for books and travel when they were at classes. Whilst recognised across the sector as a 'good thing', the fund was small and as such had a limited impact on participation, retention and achievement.

When Labour came to power, significantly more money was injected into the scheme, widening the number of FE learners who benefited from it and increasing the opportunities to fund childcare which, for adult students in particular, had become a major barrier for students returning to College. Then in the 2004/05 academic year, following successful trials, they introduced the Educational Maintenance Allowance for 16 – 18 year olds, administered centrally, and paid straight to eligible learners who met the criteria, particularly those relating to attendance at College.

Evidence from the LSC, CfBT and DCSF all suggests that EMA has had a significant impact on participation, retention and achievement of learners from poor backgrounds. Linking payment to attendance at classes was probably the main reason for its success. However, it created a huge administrative burden for colleges (originally funded as part of the scheme) – who have to complete attendance returns each week for every learner.

If this new fund is to be successful, those responsible for developing and implementing it need to learn from the lessons of the past, and the successes and failures of both the Learner Support Fund and EMA.

Firstly, the new fund must be large enough to compensate for the abolition of EMA. While we know EMA was inefficient through both burdensome administration and deadweight, any fund radically smaller will have a significantly smaller impact.

Secondly, the Coalition Government should make sure that there are no barriers preventing schools and colleges from responding to the needs of local people. If institutions are to be truly responsible for the fund, then they need the freedom to be truly responsive to local needs. For a start, this means that no ring-fencing should exist between funds for 16-19 year-olds, and those aged 19+. It should however be ensured that we do not lose the link between attendance and financial support – surely one of the most important findings from EMA.

Thirdly, those staff in schools and colleges responsible for distributing the new fund will need to devise ways to make a smaller amount of money achieve a greater impact. Central to their task will be finding methods of ensuring that the available money reaches those most in need – such as young people coming out of care – and those for which it will make the biggest difference. Establishing the most effective methods requires the time of professionals, and this isn't free. Government needs to support schools and colleges by covering their administrative costs within the fund.

Finally, getting the same results from a reduced central fund won't happen overnight. Government has made one right move by devolving the power of distribution to those closest to the frontline, but schools and colleges urgently need to know how much money will be available and the details around how it will be regulated. Institutions are in the process of planning for a period of dramatic change, no matter where they sit in the education world. This work needs to be planned for if they are to make it a success.

John Stone is chief executive of LSN, the not-for-profit organisation focused on making learning work for further and higher education, local authorities and schools, public services, work-based learning and international organisations


Read other FE News articles by John Stone:

Reading College: A different approach 

Spending review threatens FE participation

MoLeNET has taught us the benefits of technology-enabled learning, but what lessons have been learnt?

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