EMA replacement could breach equality law according to government

James Mills reports on the potential for discrimination in the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) replacement, that could force the government into another u-turn into the issue.

By James Mills of the Save EMA campaign

According to the government’s own Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) into the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) Replacement Scheme by the Department for Education, the replacement to EMA “could be discriminatory” and lead to a possible breach of equality laws. This could force, as Save EMA discovered and as covered by the BBC, Michael Gove into yet another u-turn on this policy due to legal action, this time posed by the Equality Act.

One of the main arguments made by the government for replacing EMA is that they are “better targeting” the EMA, by making the awarding of discretionary payments locally, at the discretion of local schools and colleges. Instead of the current EMA scheme which distributes payments centrally by simple, open and transparent means tests.

However, the Save EMA campaign discovered, while studying the recent EIA report, that Michael Gove and the government could be u-turning again on EMA just over a month after we forced them into a u-turn.

This is section 51 of the EIA under the heading Local Administration:

“It will be at the discretion of colleges to determine the relative merits of applications for financial support. This process is therefore open to unintended discrimination on the basis of disability; gender; ethnicity or other characteristics protected under equality law.

We will consider whether there should be some central arbitration of the discretionary administration of funding or at least ensure transparency of administration to evaluate the impact achieved by providers, including value for public money.

To remind you how big a sea change in government policy this could be, this is what Michael Gove said only on the March 28th 2011:

“Schools and colleges will have the freedom to decide on the allocation of the bursary,” he added: “They are best placed to know the specific needs of their students, and we will give professionals full flexibility over allocating support.”

For those who don’t know, an Equality Impact Assessment is conducted by a government department ahead of the introduction of a certain initiative. It examines the likely or actual effects of policies or services on people in respect of disability, gender and racial equality to identify what effect its implementation may have on different groups in the country.

It helps the government department make sure the needs of people are taken into account when they make a change to a current policy or service or when they develop and implement a new policy or service like they are doing with EMA.

This report was done by the Department for Education themselves, which makes it all the more damning as this basically is the department acknowledging that their own policy could discriminate against the most vulnerable groups which EMA was intended to target and help remain in education.

Save EMA have been saying since day one that there would be grave equality issues to removing EMA and the government has finally admitted this by whispering it in their own EIA, hoping that no one would notice.

The proposed plans for the replacement of EMA will force local, more junior staff to make vital decisions over the future of some of the most vulnerable teenagers in our country, at a time when they will already be over-worked. One just has to look at the views of self described “Tory Teacher” Katherine Birbalsingh to realise that the potential for discrimination, through the lack of transparency in locally administered discretionary payments, is severe.

It would be comical if this was not such a serious matter. Even this government’s own figures show that after the national roll out of EMA in 2004 participation of 16-18-year-olds in full-time education rose.

This government has taken a scheme viewed as successful by the IFS and created something now which “could be discriminatory”.

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