Page last updated at 19:19 GMT, Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Education Maintenance Allowance debate

Tory MP Graham Stuart, chairman of the Education Select Committee, has defended the government's decision to axe the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) in England, a grant introduced by Labour to encourage young people to stay in education beyond the age of 16.

During an opposition-led debate on 19 January 2011, Mr Stuart said he was sympathetic to concerns over the scrapping of EMA but asked MPs to be "realistic" about the state of the economy.

"Collectively we've got to try and take limited funds - which are limited, the deficit is not some irrelevant fact, it's a fundamental elephant in the room - we have to take that situation and look to do what's best," he said.

"We had a lot of spending before and we have a diet of hard decisions now. Those hard decisions have to be faced up to."

The government says the programme, which pays between £10 and £30 per week to 16- to 18-year-olds living in households earning under £30,800, is "inefficient" and "hugely expensive", and will be replaced with a "more targeted" and less wasteful system in England. The matter is devolved elsewhere in the UK.

Mr Stuart told MPs: "What I want to see is that we can come up with a system that works most effectively and yet doesn't deny the reality of the situation."

But the former Labour chairman of the committee, Barry Sheerman, said it was a "shameful day".

He said "many more" 16-year-olds now stayed on in education thanks to EMA.

"If we don't have EMA, many of them are going to be put off coming through; they will be put off because what we've done with EMA is change the culture," he said.

"That's what this was about - it was changing educational culture."

Labour former education secretary David Blunkett said the introduction of EMA had a "transformational" effect.

He said: "I was proud to introduce, along with the support of the then chancellor [Gordon Brown], the Education Maintenance Allowance pilots and subsequently the scheme.

"Of course there are improvements that could be made to it but it has been literally transformational in terms of the life chances of children."

Tory Steve Baker rejected Labour's defence of the allowances, arguing that it was "absolutely wrong to attempt to bribe 16- to 18-year-olds with their own money at interest".

Labour's call for the government to rethink its policy was defeated by 317 votes to 258, a government majority of 59.

Watch part one of the debate here.

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