The real nature of the EMA debate

Anthony Painter examines the truth behind the numbers in the Educational Maintenance Allowance debate.

In a tweet last week, the director of Policy Exchange, Neil O’Brien, described Education Maintenance Allowances as ‘one of the least effective policies’ ever. In essence, he was referring to the so-called ‘deadweight loss’ of the policy. The basis for this charge is a survey conducted by the National Foundation of Educational Research on behalf of the Department for Education.

It found that 88 per cent of EMA recipients would have stayed on anyway without the income support. Government ministers and acolytes have leapt on the findings. Game, set, and match EMA abolitionists?

Not so fast. The ‘deadweight’ argument is actually an exceedingly misleading one. Any major public policy will have a degree of ‘deadweight’, i.e. people who receive a benefit or service but don’t ‘need’ it. Let’s take a simple example. Millions of us have GP check ups every single year.

However, only a tiny proportion of us have a serious illness that is uncovered in the consultation process. Using the logic of the Government and its supporters, given the huge ‘deadweight’ of GP check-ups, the funding should be discontinued.

Imagine if Coca Cola decided that only 12 per cent of its advertising spend led to people buying its product. Would it then cut its advertising budget by 88% in order to eliminate deadweight? Of course not. It would be impossible to target the reduced budget on those who would have a propensity to buy a can of Coke if they saw an ad for the soft drink.

So the ‘deadweight’ argument is an utterly nonsensical one- albeit one that is draped in the language of common sense. If we accept it as a way of evaluating the effectiveness of a policy then almost all public policy interventions fall apart: common education, national health, universal welfare, public transport, and so on. It is toxic and it is wrong.

There are two genuine questions when it comes to assessing the success of a policy: does it work and is there a cheaper way of securing the same outcomes? On both these counts EMA stacks up well.

The most useful report in assessing the success of EMA has been published by the IFS. It finds that, in areas piloting EMA, participation rates for recipients of the payment increased by up to 8.1% for females (at age 17) and 5.5% for males (4.5% at 17.) It isn’t clear from the report what the baseline (pre EMA) participation for EMA recipients is but a not unreasonable assumption would be that in the pilot areas it was 40% (for comparison the IFS report shows that participation in full time education for 17 year –old females who were eligible for free school meals was 44%).

This would imply that EMA resulted in a 20% increase in participation for females and 14% for males.

A policy that increases participation amongst those groups most prone to chronic underachievement by somewhere in the 12% (according to the DfE survey) to 20% range is a strong policy. Moreover, with changes, i.e. cuts, to benefits elsewhere- housing benefit etc- the participation impact of EMA would increase if it remained in place. Families are more likely to be comfortable about a 16, 17 or 18 year-old kid (or two!) staying in full-time education with the EMA.

Its impact on educational outcomes is similarly significant. The 157 Group of Colleges has published research based on the experience of its constituent members (mainly large, inner city colleges.) For example, students at Lambeth College who receive the EMA are 13% more likely to pass their courses than those who do not.

When you bear in mind that these students are more deprived than non-recipients, this outcome is remarkable. Other colleges report similar impacts and this is supported by the IFS research which, for example, shows a 6.2% increased likelihood of black females in EMA pilot areas receiving a full level 3 (equivalent to 2 A Levels.)

There will be anything from 72,000 to 120,000 students who would not be in education if EMA did not exist based on extrapolation using the participation rates calculated above and the total number receiving EMA. What would these students be doing if they were not in school or college?

For each one who ends up as a NEET, i.e. not in a job as we know they won’t be in education or training, it will cost the public purse £56,300 over their lifetime according to York University research conducted on behalf of the Audit Commission. If just 18,000 or so end up workless then EMA pays for itself.

Finally, let’s consider the alternative policy- to invest £50million in hardship funds instead of £500million in EMA. It’s important to state that £50million is better than nothing! And if it were £100million, that would be even better. But just as Coca-Cola can’t eliminate its ‘deadweight’ advertising, this scheme will impact significantly those in need as well as those who could do without.

Colleges and schools will have to decide upon who are the worth recipients. How can they? There is no way to identify a genuinely needy case. There is also a moral hazard here- it provides an incentive for students to threaten to drop out or claim that they will not attend without hardship support. So the alternative becomes a bit of a scattergun.

So the policy choice is quite simple. It is not between a wasteful failure with ‘deadweight’ and a targeted efficient alternative. It’s actually the complete opposite. It’s between a policy that works but is more expensive (which is what enables it to work!) though pays for itself and a policy that, while it does some good, will be nowhere near as effective.

The coalition has chosen the latter but they should be under no illusion of the significant costs to individuals, educational attainment, social mobility, and the public purse in the long term as a result. Just let us be clear about the real nature of the choice.

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43 Responses to “The real nature of the EMA debate”

  1. Fred Garnett

    The real nature of the EMA debate blog post: @anthonypainter @SaveEMA #Demo2010 #Lobby2010 via @leftfootfwd #dayx3

  2. Paul Burgess

    RT @leftfootfwd: The real nature of the EMA debate: @anthonypainter @SaveEMA #Demo2010 #Lobby2010

  3. Shamik Das

    RT @leftfootfwd: The real nature of the EMA debate: @anthonypainter @SaveEMA #Demo2010 #Lobby2010

  4. Anthony Painter

    RT @leftfootfwd: The real nature of the EMA debate: @anthonypainter @SaveEMA #Demo2010 #Lobby2010

  5. Mary Hamilton

    RT @leftfootfwd: The real nature of the EMA debate: @anthonypainter @SaveEMA #Demo2010 #Lobby2010

  6. Save EMA

    RT @anthonypainter: RT @leftfootfwd: The real nature of the EMA debate: @anthonypainter @SaveEMA #Demo2010 #Lobby2010

  7. Anthony Painter

    A brilliant performance by @saveema on @skynews. Here's my blog on @leftfootfwd supporting the campaign #Demo2010

  8. Sam Morris

    While now in my third year at uni, the ema scheme was in full effect when I was at college and I was elegible. I think I got £20-30 a week for going to a course that I would go to anyway. It’s a completely useless scheme.

    There were people on the course that would show up just to get the money, so in that way, it worked. However, they were just there for the money and wouldn’t really put any effort in. Sure, it means the attendance figures are higher but colleges should be about the quality of students not the quantity of them.

    We only knew about the EMA once we got to college, so it didn’t entice people to go to college. If you wanted to be there, you would still stay there, regardless of the EMA. It only succeeded in keeping people on the course, who didn’t want to be there.

    I’d scrap the whole scheme and invest that money into the colleges. People who become disinterested (but stay because of EMA) might not become so, if the quality of colleges was higher.

  9. Marcus Chavken

    The real nature of the EMA debate

  10. Anthony Painter

    Colleges support EMA. Given that they are funded and inspected on the basis of successful outcomes for individual learners they are hardly likely to support a policy that doesn’t increase successful outcomes. It is worth reading the TES coverage of the 157 Group research that I’ve linked to above.

  11. Sam Morris

    From my experience, and this was only on the three years at one college, but there were people who only showed up to get their EMA signed. They had no intension of staying on that career.

    For everyone else, the money wouldn’t make a difference. I do like the idea of a smaller amount being given to those in drastic need of financial aid. It’s definitely tough to judge but at the university I’m at now they do Access To Learning Grants. If you’re in dire need of money, you need to submit bank statements and make a case on why you need the boost in money. A board then judges whether to give the student money or not.

  12. John Turner

    RT @leftfootfwd: The real nature of the EMA debate: @anthonypainter @SaveEMA #Demo2010 #Lobby2010

  13. Spir.Sotiropoulou

    RT @leftfootfwd: The real nature of the EMA debate

  14. ewa

    Without ema I could not afford to send my daughter to school. Her fares alone are £25 a week, let alone educational trips. She went on a history trip to London today (from Medway towns)and that cost her £25 on top of her usual fares. I am on widows pension and for us ema is the difference between heating the house moderately or being cold

  15. Anthony Painter

    Should you think that EMA is a 'deadweight loss', I'd encourage you to read comment no 4 on my LFF blog. #ff @saveema

  16. Kevin Peel

    Excellent @leftfootfwd article by @anthonypainter making the case for why we should @SaveEMA: #SaveEMA

  17. Brian Cathcart

    If the government was really attached to dead weight arguments it would long ago have halted police stop and search as a tactic. A million-plus stops and searches per year under PACE alone, but a pitifully low score in terms of crime prevention or arrests and convictions. As a police tactic it does almost no measurable good but takes up a huge amount of time (and cost, both in money and in social cohesion). Dead weight in EMA is just an excuse; there is no government commitment to dead weight arguments on principle because it would wreck many of their favourite policies.

  18. Mr. Sensible

    I have to say it doesn’t surprise me that this government cuts something and it leads to more trouble down the track…

  19. EMA keeps students in education for longer, says new study ahead of Monday’s Save EMA day | Save the EMA

    […] out more here: Left Foot Forward This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Save the EMA – […]

  20. Wes Streeting

    RT @anthonypainter: And here is the case for EMA:

  21. R Gordon

    RT @anthonypainter: And here is the case for EMA: <thorough and persuasive

  22. Frieda_M

    RT @anthonypainter: And here is the case for EMA:

  23. Caroline Thomas

    RT @anthonypainter: And here is the case for EMA:

  24. Alan Roberts

    RT @anthonypainter: And here is the case for EMA:

  25. Lewis Webster

    RT @anthonypainter: And here is the case for EMA:

  26. Anthony Painter

    “@xtophercook: The IFS strikes back…” < Kapow. I am reasonably happy with my blog last week:

  27. IFS shoots coalition's deadweight EMA cuts argument to pieces | Left Foot Forward

    […] Last week, I confronted the ‘deadweight loss’ argument which the Government claims is 88 per cent based on a survey that was conducted on its behalf. My argument was that a whole swathe of public policy interventions would be discontinued if this were the test. Let’s not get into a statistical to and fro. […]

  28. dan hancox

    @Homeboy_Hotel @DuncanTigerHero two pieces of detailed analysis here on how EMA drives attainment

  29. dan hancox those lazily saying 'EMA doesn't work' shd read these superb analyses by @anthonypainter #saveEMA

  30. Josie Long

    RT @danhancox: those lazily saying 'EMA doesn't work' shd read these superb analyses by @antho …

  31. Jill Hayward

    RT @danhancox: those lazily saying 'EMA doesn't work' shd read these superb analyses by @antho …

  32. david

    RT @danhancox: those lazily saying 'EMA doesn't work' shd read these superb analyses by @antho …

  33. Sam Diamond

    RT @danhancox: those lazily saying 'EMA doesn't work' shd read these superb analyses by @antho …

  34. Anthony Painter

    I did a couple of pieces analysing the research behind the scrapping of EMA here: #saveEMA

  35. ULivUCU

    RT @anthonypainter: I did a couple of pieces analysing the research behind the scrapping of EMA here:

  36. Public University

    A couple of pieces analysing research behind scrapping of EMA here: #saveEMA @ULivUCU

  37. Richard Hall

    RT @public_uni: A couple of pieces analysing research behind scrapping of EMA here: #saveEMA @ …

  38. Alistair Sinclair

    RT @anthonypainter: I did a couple of pieces analysing the research behind the scrapping of EMA here:

  39. Martin McQuillan

    RT @public_uni: A couple of pieces analysing research behind scrapping of EMA here: #saveEMA @ …

  40. Alex

    RT @public_uni: A couple of pieces analysing research behind scrapping of EMA here: #saveEMA @ …

  41. Axing EMA is not a tough choice - it's a stupid one | Left Foot Forward

    […] been over the evidence for retaining EMA in previous posts for Left Foot Forward – here and here; it works. It keeps 16-18 year olds in education, helps them succeed and saves us all […]

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