Belfast Telegraph

Pupils 'would continue without EMA'

Almost two-thirds of teenagers in Northern Ireland who receive state aid to encourage them to stay in education admit they would have continued their studies whether they were paid or not.

The findings of a sample survey among the 24,000 young people who get Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) in Northern Ireland highlight inefficiencies inherent in the £27 million a year scheme, government officials told MLAs.

Of young people who were due to become eligible for EMA, the percentage who claim it would not influence their decision to remain in education is even higher (71%), according to the Department for Employment and Learning's director of higher education Fergus Devitt.

Mr Devitt told members of his departmental scrutiny committee that there was not enough money in the budget to fund the projected £31 million per year spend on EMA at the end of the four-year budgetary period and savings had to be made.

Teenagers aged between 16-19 are eligible, through means testing, for £10, £20 or £30 payments per week, with up to three £100 bonus payments per year for completing stages of their studies. Of the 24,000 who receive the payments, 60% are in school and 40% in further education colleges.

The average EMA student receives £1,000 in state allowance per year.

Mr Devitt said the review, which was carried out by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers, flagged up areas where efficiencies could be achieved. But he said it also demonstrated that EMA delivered higher attendance rates at school or college.

"Overall, the findings from the review have shown there is broad support for the principles of EMA and for the provision of support for learners, particularly those from low income backgrounds who may experience barriers to learning, and findings would also show that the original rationale for EMA continues to be valid," he told the Employment and Learning committee.

"However, it is widely recognised that Northern Ireland is currently facing a challenging economic situation, in particular the tightening of the public purse and the increasing pressure on government departments to find savings across the CSR (comprehensive spending review) period, and therefore in the context of EMA there is a need to ensure that any such funding support is directed toward those who need it most, where it will ultimately have the most meaningful impact."

Department for Employment and Learning minister Dr Stephen Farry has signalled his intention to make savings within EMA as part of his cost-cutting drive to shoulder the price of retaining the cap on student tuition fees.

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