Page last updated at 13:48 GMT, Tuesday, 2 September 2008 14:48 UK

Students face allowance problems

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Computer screen
Colleges warn that students are facing problems with allowances

A further education college is using its own money to give financial support to students - following problems with the delivery of government allowances.

About 150,000 teenagers in England are believed to be caught in a backlog for the Educational Maintenance Allowances of up to £30 a week.

South Cheshire College is using its own funds to make emergency loans to help students stay in education.

A private company has an £80m contract to administer the allowances.

The Learning and Skills Council, which is responsible for the allowances, says it has been "pushing hard and complaining hard" to get the contractor, Liberata, to resolve technical problems including the crashing of the helpline.

Dropping out

With echoes of the problems with the delivery of the Sats tests in England, the LSC says that 400 extra staff have been hired by the private contractor to tackle the backlog.

South Cheshire College principal, David Collins, says the means-tested allowances "can be the difference between students continuing to study or dropping out and getting a low-paid job".

So Mr Collins says that his college is offering to lend emergency payments to help with bus fares and meal costs - which will be repaid when the administrative problems are resolved.

The college principal, who is also president of the Association of Colleges, says students wanting to claim the allowances have been reporting jammed helplines and difficulties with online systems.

A college administrator trying to help students spent an hour unsuccessfully trying to get through to a helpline, says Mr Collins.

The administrative failings are putting at threat a very successful incentive for teenagers from low-income families, says Mr Collins.

"The allowances have been tremendously important."

The Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) is a flagship scheme to encourage more teenagers to stay in education and to reduce the drop-out rate at the age of 16.

It provides a means-tested financial incentive to keep teenagers in learning - particularly in further education colleges - with the Association of Colleges expecting 600,000 students to receive the payments this year.

Backdated

The allowances are run on behalf of the government by the Learning and Skills Council - which has contracted out the administration to a private company, Liberata.

Liberata is an outsourcing company, with a majority stake owned by a private equity company with offices in the United States. Liberata has a six-year contract worth £80m to deliver EMAs and other projects for the LSC.

The LSC estimates that about 150,000 applications are experiencing delays caused by technical problems.

But Trevor Fellowes, director of learner support for the LSC, says no student will suffer financially from the delays, with payments set to be backdated.

Mr Fellowes says that the phone helpline system has not performed adequately and on occasions has crashed completely. Plans for an online system had already been postponed, he says, and the contractor is processing applications semi-manually.

Mr Fellowes said he was confident that the problems will be resolved.

The National Union of Students' president, Wes Streeting, says "It is unacceptable that students up and down the country will be left to struggle due to administrative incompetence. These delays and difficulties must be resolved as soon as possible."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I sent off my EMA documents in early June, and I still haven't heard anything back. This is an absoloute disgrace. Luckily my parents are going to lend me some money to compensate for bus fares etc. But I am really let down and disappointed. I personally think that Liberta should be fined in some way, or get paid less for this shambles. I just hope that it all gets backdated, and that Liberta announces some kind of formal apology.
Alfie, Liskeard

I sent off all the correct documents with the EMA application for my son at the beginning of August, and have not heard a thing so far! I tried phoning but just couldn't get through so I gave up. Thanks to your coverage I now realise it's not just us who are waiting, so I feel a bit better. It is a typical story of outsourcing gone wrong. Unfortunately it is too common these days. What's next, outsourcing the work of the NHS?
Lucy, Peterborough

My son sent his form and my P60 off in July by special delivery and we still have not heard anything. I have been ringing twice a day for the last 10 days and have never been able to get through despite spending up to an hour on the phone each time. Most calls were disconnected almost immediately. I desperately need the P60 back to submit for a court hearing and the college is also trying to sort this for me with no success.
Lynn Hunt, Newcastle Staffs

I applied for EMA in June and have still heard nothing,I was suppose to hand in my NOE last week but obviously I havent been able to.My mum doesnt earn much money so shes now worrying as she needs the documents to claim working tax credit.Backdating the payments is not enough,what are we suppose to do in the meantime?
Lauren, Nottingham

I sent off my application in early July and still have heard nothing. I have been ringing continuously for the past two weeks with little sucess and when I finally got through they told me that they did not know nothing about it! This means I will have to work on top of sixth form until my payments come through meaning this another pressure I do not need. What is happening?
Andrew Dwyer, Sheffield, UK

I have been trying to find out the situation regarding my son's EMA application for a month now so this is not a problem that has suddenly emerged. The helpline, if you can get through, cannot access information in "real time". The helpline staff say they will get back to you but never do. Yet another government debacle!
Maggie Webb, Leeds, UK

I started college yesterday and was not able to hand in my NOE to claim my EMA because I haven't recieved it. I sent my application off in the first week of June. I keep ringing and have even complained several times...it doesn't work. It would be nice if the LSC or the EMA put up a notice on either website explaning the delay instead of leaving it.
Leigh-Anne, Herts

My 16 year old stepson has just begun college and I, like everyone else, have sent sensitive documents, including my P60, away with the application. I was not aware that my documents were being handled by a private company and I'm now very concerned as I need this documentation to claim working tax credit which will only be backdated by a few months. Any delay here will cost my family dearly, but I very much doubt there will be any leeway given in my claim.
Jason Hollman, Derby, Derbyshire

Nearly 50% of the students at the college where I work qualify for EMA; this is not an affluent area. Our EMA officer has been trying for six weeks to get some sense out of Liberata, without success, and our term starts next week; almost half our students will be unable to get the money they should have. When is the government going to see that all this outsourcing is invariably a complete disaster?
Jill, Southampton

Being from a low income household and having just started sixth form, I was relying on the EMA I was supposed to be given to help buy the compulsory formal wear I need and buy revision text books. Instead I find myself working a part-time job at my local pub in order to pay for these, when I should be using that time to study. This has the largest impact on those who struggle financially, such as myself, who should be putting 100% effort into their studies, but can't without EMA due to financial circumstances. Another blunder by one of this government's incompetent contractors- it doesn't bear thinking about what will happen to the census!
James Handy, Warwick

I rang EMA about my son and daughter's claims last week and was told that there was a delay for all students. They could not confirm they had received their claims or our P60s and can not tell me when they are going to reurn them. Woman on the phone said there was a month or so's delay we should hear something in about two weeks time. She would not go into any deatils about the issues but just kept repeating there were problems and it would be a while to sort them out.
Sue Fender, Chatham, Kent

Low income families cannot afford to wait weeks for payments to be backdated. Who pays for essential items that students will need to continue their studies? Further to this why have the LSC not learnt from the previuos debacles with EMA. I know of one student who is disabled and has waited 10 weeks for a response regarding her EMA. Without this she has no chance of buying the equipment she needs. Great idea but once again it lets students down who really want to study. Shame on the LSC.
Peter, Seaham, County Durham

My daughter applied for EMA in June 2008 and sent the relevent documentation with the application. These had to be original documents, copies were not acceptable. After a number of calls to the Help-line she received confirmation in mid August that she would be receiving the allowance. To date we are still awaiting the return of the documentation including bank statements and P60's. I would have expected these documents to have been scanned upon receipt and returned immediately thereby ensuring postal problems were kept to a minimum. Another Goverment foul-up on the horizon?
Barry Walton, Desborough, Northants

I sent off my daughter's EMA application in July. Got through to the helpline last week (after holding on for 30 minutes, at least it is an 0800 number) They said applications were taking 6-8 weeks to process. They were however able to confirm receipt of our documents, which was reassuring, I think
Brian Griffiths, Cambridge, England

I sent my forms off at the begining of june, waited a good two months and had no reply what so ever, so I decided to ring them. I could not use a landline so the 0800 number ended up costing me a good fortune on my mobile simply to get the reply 'Did you send the application off in the envelope provided' to which i answerd 'Yes' all she then said was 'Well I don't see why we wouldnt have recieved your application then'. Wasnt a very good response in my eyes and cost me about £20 in phone credit to get that answer. I still have no NOE and have signed up for 6th form today without it. I just hope they are going to be helpful and quick with backdating payments because usually they are very reluctant to backpay you unless you have the evidence.
Stephanie, Nottinghamshire

We applied early in July. In early August we received a letter of confirmation that our son would be getting the EMA. (Our P60 was not returned) One week later the P60 was finally returned, along with a letter stating that our son's EMA application "is being processed, and a decision will be made soon"! We're now trying to let them know our son's new bank account details. Given up on the 'phone, posted two letters to them (second one marked "URGENT")..so far no response, and we're not holding our breath. What a shambles.
Louise,

We find ourselves in exactly the same situation as all the above. After 2 weeks of trying to speak to someone at EMA my wife finally got a 'voice' to talk to. She was told the same tales of delays etc. The whole business is entirely unsatisfactory and 6th form students deserve better.
Andrew, Bidford-on-Avon, Warks

Why do the government outsource so much? The students had problems with exam results and now with allowances! It seems that so much is outsourced when it should be controlled in-house. I have personally had experience with outsourcing and found it to be a disaster.
Milly, Amsterdam, Netherlands

This news has myself and fellow colleagues very worried; we have already noticed problems with the system as we can't get ahold of anyone at EMA, cannot sign into the website as we have no usernames or passwords, many students have come in worried that they haven't received their paperwork back from EMA and the prospect of students without the £30 that a lot of them need rather than want (they wouldn't be able to attend college if they didn't have the money for transport and course supplies) is a daunting one. We will be the ones with irrate parents and students complaining about not receiving any money, when there is simply nothing we can do. Yet again, an American company has caused the UK problems (i.e Edinburgh Fringe Festival) - isn't it about time we took control of our own companies and not letting other countries control them?
EMA Provider, UK

Yet another situation that shows that private contractors do not offer value for money when employed to do public-sector work. How can a private company offer a better service than a publicly-run body when their main aim is profit, not service? This sort of farce is what you get when you offer contracts to the 'lowest bidder', rather than the ones who actually have a workable plan.
Matthew Johnson, London, UK

I work for a college that pays EMA and i agree with Matthew Johnson. The old EMA provider was easy enough to use and just because they have been outbid they lost the contract, this also has come at the worst time, what with new school students coming in and new contract year, why was this not sorted out back in august when everybody was aware by that time, putting the site online back then would have helped the people putting through the payments as well as it would give us plenty of time to know the website inside out and be able to deal with queries efficiently rather than having to second guess our way around the website
Anthony Jones, Stevenage, England

I sent off for my EMA a couple of months ago, getting anxious I phoned them, waiting with terrible hold music for about an hour I finally got through but the customer service was poor, although I will forgive them due to the amount of calls they probably have had to take. I finally received it 2 days later but when I opened it I found they had printed my name as 'Carly', which is both embarressing and frustrating meaning I had to return it to get it changed, seems i'm going to have to wait another couple of months.
Carl, Gosport

i sent my form in july, and i am applying for an admissions test UKCAT and the cost is £75. EMA allows me to reduce that amount but because my NOE has not come through i am unable to recieve the bursary. The deadline for booking the test is rapidly approaching, and i have a feeling i will have to pay the full amount even though i am going to struggle to do so.
anisa, warrington

A bit of a side issue perhaps - but has anyone who works for this outsource company been CRB checked? (Ooops - still a six month backlog there too) as one of my big concerns with late return of paperwork dealing with personal ID and finances is fraud and identity theft. Are applicants actually warned at any point that someone other than a government department is going to have access to their documents?
John, Nottingham

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