College dishes out grants to replace government cuts

HELPING HAND South Downs College's  Connor Hartnett and Louise Williamson who benefit from a scheme to pay for books and transport are pictured with principal Michael Oakes.  Picture: Paul Jacobs (114239-4)
HELPING HAND South Downs College's Connor Hartnett and Louise Williamson who benefit from a scheme to pay for books and transport are pictured with principal Michael Oakes. Picture: Paul Jacobs (114239-4)

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THE AXING of a scheme that gave struggling college students up to £30 a week is widely believed to be one of the most damaging education cuts the government has made.

But the end of the so-called Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) is not an issue at a college in Waterlooville which is offering its own – and much more generous – alternative.

Michael Oakes, principal of South Downs College, has put aside a quarter of a million pounds for his Education Support Grant (ESG), to subsidise travel, books, clothes, equipment, work placements and trips to universities for more than 2,000 of his students who were eligible for the EMA.

He said: ‘The coalition government’s decision to end the EMA was profoundly mistaken and with over one million young people unemployed could have long lasting effect.

‘It beggars belief that they should do this and at the same time say participation in education has to go up to 17 and 18 years. If you’re going to be an inclusive society and encourage social mobility then you’ve got to help less fortunate people. And if the government isn’t going to do that, I am.’

Mr Oakes, who has a £36m annual budget and no debts, has set aside money for the ESG by making savings on equipment purchases across all departments.

To qualify for it, students must either have a family income of less than £20,817 – the threshold for maximum £30 EMA allowance – or have parents in receipt of a benefit.

But a big difference between the ESG and the EMA is that the former is not paid in cash handouts, but through full or partial subsidies which guarantees the money is being spent on education.

Mr Oakes recently hit the headlines for refusing to dock a day’s wages for staff who went on strike.

Louise Williamson, 16, of Glenthorne Road in Copnor, is doing a course in childcare and receives the full ESG grant.

She said: ‘If not for the ESG I wouldn’t be doing the course I want because I can’t afford to travel in by bus which costs about £5 a day return, let alone buy the books I need.

‘If not for this opportunity, I’d have dropped out of college doing something I didn’t enjoy and would have ended up becoming one of the statistics.’

Connor Hartnett, 16, of Battens Way in Leigh Park, who is on the same course, also receives the grant.

He said: ‘When I heard the EMA had been cut I was so worried as I really wanted to have a career and get a good job to provide for myself.

‘The grant has taken a lot of the pressure off. If not for it, I’d be working non-stop weekends to afford to come in to college, and I’d probably be behind in work.

‘The jobs market is so tough and youth unemployment is at an all-time high – I’m grateful for this.’