Left to chance

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IT does not matter whether the Parliamentary debate revolves around the future of Halifax or Barnsley, as was the case yesterday, but one of the fundamental issues is the same: is this Government doing enough to help school-leavers?

Ministers will say they are, with the revised policy on the repayment of university tuition fees an acknowledgement that it would have been unfair to burden graduates from disadvantage backgrounds with debts that will cripple them for life.

Yet this issue, one that is still politically toxic for the Liberal Democrats, does not affect all 16 to 19-year-olds – the age group now in the greatest danger of missing out according to research undertaken by the children’s charity Barnardo’s.

The reason is the decision to replace the £560m Educational Maintenance Allowance with a £180m Bursary Fund that is designed to enable teenagers with little or no financial independence to continue their studies and, therefore, enhance their future job prospects.

Again the Government says this is an adequate policy, pointing out that money can be better targeted at those students in the greatest hardship.

However the evidence points to the contrary. There are now more young people in financial poverty because of the economic slump. Yet, while government spending needs to be curtailed, this key policy area is suffering a cut in spending that is totally disproportionate to the rest of the public sector, with some teenagers having to skip meals in order to travel to college.

Yet, while Ministers will say that they cannot comment on individual cases, they need to remember this: it will be far more advantageous to the region’s economic well-being if students can continue their education for as long as possible so they gain the qualifications that will enable them to maximise their potential.