YORKSHIRE college bosses have criticised the Government's decision to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) as students and trade unions prepare to hold demonstrations today calling for the support scheme to be saved.
Principals from six further education and sixth form colleges in the region have written an open letter to the Yorkshire Post warning that axing the means-tested allowance for 16 to 19-year-olds will force some poorer pupils to leave education once they finish school.
The letter signed by Askham Bryan principal Liz Philip, Craven College's Alan Blackwell, Scarborough Sixth Form College's Tom Potter, Selby College's Allan Stewart, York College's Alison Birkinshaw and Bonita Hodge, from the Yorkshire Coast College, also hits out at the Department for Education's decision to remove the EMA for existing students who started in September and will now lose the funding for their final year.
It says: "The overall spending cut, from 574m to possibly as little as 75m, will cause real hardship for many young people and their families and force others to narrow their choice or stop attending education altogether. We urge Ministers to reconsider their decision and to remove financial obstacles to study for young people from low income families."
The EMA is a means-tested grant aimed at helping pupils from poorer households to stay in education. Up to 30 a week can be paid to students whose family income is less than 20,817. The Government announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review that it was to be scrapped from January.
Bradford College principal Michele Sutton has voiced fears over how this will affect the future of young people from deprived backgrounds.
She said: "Over half our 16 to 18- year-old students – approximately 2500 – currently receive EMAs and the majority of these claim 30 per week. If these young people stayed on in school then they may be entitled to free school meals but because this does not apply to college students they receive no assistance for meals.
"As a city centre college many of our students have to travel from some distance away to attend and use their EMA to contribute towards transport costs which is something that will not be supported in the future. With youth unemployment figures already high I am worried about their future. Providing support to vulnerable and disadvantaged young people surely is the right thing to do."
Trade unions Unison, UCU, GMB, Unite, ATL, the NUT and the National Union of Students have called for peaceful demonstrations to take place today against the removal of the allowance.
The UCU's general secretary Sally Hunt said: "The EMA is a vital lifeline for many students in this country and can be the difference between people being able to study at college or being priced out. Withdrawing the EMA will hit some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society, as well as the colleges that are there to serve them."
However Schools Minister Nick Gibb claimed that 90 per cent of the students who currently receive EMA would have stayed in education without it. He added: "Given the economic climate, the state of the public finances and the very difficult decisions we have had to make across Government, it is only right that we should find a better, more effective way of targeting support to those young people who really need financial support to continue in education."
Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham said stopping the EMA "flies in the face" of the Government's claim to value social mobility.