Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Monday, 29 September 2008 13:12 UK

Pupils struggle after EMA delays

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

Lesson
EMA often boosts pupils' attendance rates

Students across England are struggling to get by without their education maintenance allowances.

This is the money aimed at those from poorer homes to encourage them to stay in school or college after age 16.

A month ago 150,000 students were said to be caught up, but that has risen to 155,000, despite efforts by contractor Liberata to tackle the problems.

An influx of emails to the BBC News website suggests many are struggling and some are considering dropping out.

Bus fares and books

One student from Staffordshire, Dannii, said she had begun to ask herself why she had gone back to college at all.

She said: "My mum earns nothing and lives on benefits, as she can't work because my sister is disabled.

"She can't afford to lend me any money and it's costing me £19 a week in bus fare at the moment - not to mention the amount I've got to spend on books and materials.

"At the moment I owe my dad £80 due to backlogged EMA.

"I work two jobs as well as trying to study full-time for my A-levels, and it's still not covering what I need."

One father-of-two from Millom in Cumbria, who did not want to give his name for fear of embarrassing his children, said: "We are trying our level best to scrape together some help to allow our daughter to continue in college to complete her NVQ Level 3."

If you ask students they will say they can't afford to come to college without EMA
Lee Davies
college EMA administrator

He continued: "Our nearest college is one hour away and although she has a bus pass it's not always that simple to get to and from the college when she stays for late practical classes.

"She can't buy essential clothing and equipment. It's a proper worry."

He has also had to re-apply on his son's behalf because the application form sent in weeks ago does not appear to have been processed.

Although EMAs are UK-wide the problems affect only England, where the administration of the scheme has been contracted out to a company called Liberata.

An EMA administrator at Xaverian Sixth Form College in central Manchester, Lee Davies, said there had been problems right from the start when Liberata had taken over the contract from Capita.

"We expected teething problems, but this is quite extreme," he said.

Students had even had trouble getting hold of application forms, which had not been available online as had been advertised, and there had been "technical issues" with the phone systems.

"The application process seems to take up to five weeks. Worse still, students who make a mistake filling in their form seem to get put right to the back of the queue once they resend a corrected application."

Loans

This problem has affected 18-year-old Ali Ismail, who applied in June for his EMA which he uses mainly to pay for his bus fares and course books.

"I am having to borrow from friends and I am getting really worried about paying it all back.

"I can't find a job at the moment because I am in education full time.

"I don't know when I am going to get the money, but I've been told it might not be before Christmas."

Even when students had heard from Liberata, schools and colleges still had problems paying them through the web-based system they were required to use, said Mr Davies.

"We are still forced to use the interim version, even though a full version was promised before the start of the academic year.

"It's slow, looks like a GCSE IT project, lacks necessary functionality and seems to have been created without end-users in mind."

'Bribe that works'

Because of its inner city location in Rusholme, Xaverian College has up to 60% of its pupils entitled to EMA.

Mr Davies said: "If you ask students they will say they can't afford to come to college without EMA.

"Most of the students here do need to travel to come here - they might have to take a couple of buses or trains.

"The students still don't know when they're going to get the money. Some of them don't even know if they qualify."

EMA also works by ensuring students attend more of their lessons than perhaps they otherwise would.

"It really does make a difference. The students who are not on EMA don't have the same incentive to go in to their lessons," says Mr Davies.

The college allows only three periods of sickness before EMA is withdrawn.

"The pupils will come up and say, 'I've got a headache, I don't feel well, I've got to go home' and I say, 'If you can make it through your lesson you'll still get the EMA'.

"To be honest it's a bribe - and the bribe works.

"It's encouraging kids to come to school more often and hopefully it will have an effect on their overall achievement.

"It is supposed to be an incentive payment, but for those students who have not yet received theirs, that incentive is being lost," he added.

Contingency

Contractor Liberata says 1,000 extra staff are being employed to manually enter data into its system because its software is not working.

It says that between 10,000 and 12,000 applications are being resolved daily but blames a spike in applications at the beginning of term for the increasing backlog.

A spokesman also acknowledged that the IT system sourced by one of its technology partners was "less than optimal".

The Learning and Skills Council, which has overall responsibility for the scheme, says no student should be facing hardship because it is funding extra support which could be accessed from their colleges.

But the Association of Colleges said many colleges may not have the resources to fund such support, because the LSC money was not available up front and had to be reclaimed.



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