Cutting grant will narrow horizons of young people

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As principal of Highbury College, Stella Mbubaegbu is a highly-respected figure in the local education world. So when she says that getting rid of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) would have a ‘devastating’ impact on Portsmouth’s young people, we should all share her concern.

The big danger is that, in its search for savings, the government could be damaging the ability of those from poorer families to better themselves. It is their aspirations that are at stake here.

Without a weekly means-tested grant of between £10 and £30 to buy books and equipment, pay for travel and help with food and rent, will many students decide that they can’t afford to go into further education? It may not seem all that much to some, but to them it could be the difference between getting education and training and being frozen out.

It’s hard enough to change the way people think when they come from families where leaving school and starting work is the norm and going to college is something that happens to other people. Take away the cash that would help them to study and they are even less likely to challenge that tradition.

Shadow education secretary Andy Burnham told MPs yesterday that scrapping the EMA was ‘kicking away the ladder of opportunity’ and that it was social mobility ‘thrown into reverse’.

Of course he has seized upon the issue. With students protesting nationally, it’s a populist cause and Labour senses it can land a heavy blow on the coalition government. But this is about much more than politics.

The numbers involved are huge. The EMA supports almost half of 16 to 18-year-old college students in Portsmouth and Hampshire. As well as deterring new students, axeing the payment as part of last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review will affect those already on courses. Will some of them have to drop out as a result?

It would be shortsighted in the extreme if young people ended up out of work and costing the economy instead of studying and training to make themselves more employable.