18/10/2012 09:14 BST | Updated 18/10/2012 14:11 BST

Scrapping The EMA Was 'A Very Bad Mistake', Rules Alan Milburn In Access Report

The coalition's social mobility tsar has condemned the controversial scrapping of the education maintenance allowance, the grants which enabled poor teenagers to stay at school.

Former minister Alan Milburn called the abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) a "very bad mistake" and suggested universities should offer grants to poor sixth-formers.

The EMA was introduced by the previous Labour government and gave students with a household income of under £20,817 between £10 and £30 a week for books and transport so they could remain in post-16 education.

The scheme was abolished by education secretary Michael Gove after he decided it was badly targeted, prompting protests and marches across England, with many feeling Gove has yet to offer an adequate replacement. Children's charity Barnardo's has deemed Gove's EMA alternative "unfair and inadequate".

A previous report by a House of Commons education committee said the coalition had "misjudged" the effect of removing the grants.

In Milburn's report, he calls for universities to fund similar payments to the EMA for sixth-formers, rather than providing so many bursaries and subsidised tuition fees for less well-off students.

Milburn's research, commissioned by the government into widening access to higher education, is due to be published on Friday morning.

The report urges a more structured system to ensure universities take an applicant's background into account, including setting lower A-level entry grades.

Milburn urged all universities to give guaranteed interviews and lower A-level offers to poorer pupils,

The former Labour Labour minister called for top institutions to sponsor an academy school in an disadvantaged area, and to provide bright poor pupils with the chance to study for a foundation degree if they have lower grades than they would usually ask for.

He added all universities should sign up to a pledge to take a student's background into account when deciding who to accept, saying institutions needed to "redouble their efforts" to ensure places are open to all those with talent and potential.

All institutions should offer a foundation year programme so less advantaged youngsters have a chance to catch up with their peers, according to Milburn.


Protesters gathered at Piccadilly Circus, London, in January 2011, before they walked to Parliament Square in a march against controversial plans to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

Professor Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK, said the group supported the report's recognition of the role universities play in promoting social mobility but contested the suggestion of lowering grades for poorer students.

"Anyone with the ability and potential, irrespective of their background, should have the opportunity to succeed at a university suitable for them, including access to the most selective institutions and courses.

"Universities UK endorses fully the support given to the use of contextual data by universities. This does not, however, have to involve admitting applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds with lower entry grades.

"While some universities do consider lowering their requirements by one or two grades, this is part of a much wider process in which the university considers a range of factors alongside an applicant's grades. Universities have always used such information to help identify an applicant’s potential, which cannot always be determined from grades alone.

"Evidence shows that students from less selective educational backgrounds perform at least as well at university, and some even better."

Milburn told the BBC that poor GCSE and A-level results remained the biggest barrier to higher education.

One of the most effective ways of boosting access was to help meet teenagers' living costs before they go to university - as EMA had done, he said.

"Universities need to grasp this nettle and need to realise that their job is not just to take what the schools give them," Milburn said.

"Their job is also to ensure that what the schools are giving them are kids with the widest range of talent, the widest range of potential and the widest range of social backgrounds."

Dr Tessa Stone, CEO of mentoring charity Brightside, cautioned without effective careers information and guidance for all secondary pupils, equality of access to higher education is at risk.

"Mr Milburn is right to point out that private schools intensively prepare their pupils for university applications and admissions in a way that very many state schools can’t.

"While controversial proposals such as pupil-premium style funding for universities taking poorer students will be the headline grabbers from this week’s report, Brightside would like to see equal prominence given to his proposals regarding the availability of good information, advice and guidance for students in state schools.

"In his speech to the Conservative Party conference earlier this month, the Prime Minister spoke of his desire to see every child in Britain have the same standard of education and opportunity that he enjoyed. Without equality of access to high quality careers information and guidance, something we are dedicated to improving, his vision will not become a reality."


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