Baroness Benjamin welcomes government progress in helping vulnerable children and young people stay on in education, but says much more could be done.
I am most encouraged by the government's clear commitment to helping vulnerable children and young people make progress in education, and eventually into work. They have done a lot to improve the life chances of the poorest pupils, including the introduction of a pupil premium and a number of programmes to help young job seekers, such as the new Youth Contract.
However, there are areas in which we should be doing much more to ensure that the most disadvantaged young people can afford to stay on in education and training once they've left mandatory full-time education. For example making face to face independent advice and guidance more easily available. Also by ensuring all local authorities provide affordable transport to those travelling to schools and colleges reducing the financial pressure on young learners which research shows is causing many of them to consider leaving their courses, especially those in the most deprived areas in the country.
The government has recently replaced the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) with the Bursary Fund, which meant a cut of over two-thirds in the amount of money available to support 16 and 19 year olds to stay on in education or training. Although the bursary fund is still targeted at the poorest, it is discretionary, and unlike the EMA cannot be guaranteed for all young people below a certain income threshold. This means that large numbers of the poorest young people have seen vital money to support their education substantially reduced or cut completely.
The children's charity Barnardo's (of which I am a vice president) has carried out research showing that the bursary fund just isn't reaching all the disadvantaged young people who need it. Their calculations suggest that the fund would need to be expanded from its present level of £180m to £250m in order to provide a full bursary for all the young people who are currently eligible for free school meals, which is commonly accepted as the group of young people who are most deprived. This means worryingly that the fund doesn't reach all the people it should.
But there's another problem with the scheme too, local organisations and councils who are responsible for administering the fund are only allowed to spend 5 per cent of the amount they receive on administrative costs. Barnardo's research found that in many cases, particularly for the smallest providers, this is far too little. Some colleges and local authorities are absorbing the costs of administering the fund in order to avoid disadvantaging young people, meaning that the true cost of the bursary fund is hidden. Colleges, local authorities and other providers are funded from the public purse therefore it is in the interests of transparency that this cost is properly accounted for.
Another discrepancy the government needs to address is the fact that the poorest students in school 6th forms are entitled to free school meals, but those in further education colleges are not. It simply makes no sense for these two groups of young people to be treated differently. This would be a relatively easy anomaly to rectify and really would help some of the most disadvantaged young people to stay on in education and training by ensuring their subsistence needs are met.
The government's post - 16 transport guidance clearly states that local authorities should ensure that accessible and affordable transport is available for young learners. But again research suggests that many local authorities are not complying with the guidance. Young people mainly use the bursary fund to pay for their transport to college and are expected to pay the full standard adult fare. This is causing them huge anxieties.
Barnardo's have carried out detailed research into what it would take to help children and young people carry on learning and prepare themselves for work.
Of course, these recommendations are not cost neutral, but they are well worth the investment, sooner rather than later, because young learners are the future lifeblood of the economy. We shouldn't deny them the basics in life and risk losing all the talent they have to offer.