THOUSANDS of Hampshire teenagers could be put off continuing education after school because the Government is axing the cash payments to help them study, education bosses fear.
The move has sparked serious concerns many young people, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, could damage their career prospects by not gaining qualifications beyond their GCSEs.
Students currently receive up to £30 a week to cover the cost of transport, food or books and equipment needed for their courses, but the money is being pulled at the end of the academic year.
College bosses are concerned the move means many current school pupils will now choose to leave full-time education after their GCSEs, missing out on the chance to broaden their career chances.
They collectively face bills of hundreds of thousands of pounds if they want to replace the payments themselves.
At Southampton’s three further education colleges, nearly 2,000 students – around half – currently receive Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) payments.
The Government has said it will close the scheme to new applicants from January, and those students getting cash won’t receive it beyond the end of the summer term.
Instead, Chancellor George Osborne has said the allowance, which has been in place since 1944 but was changed by the Labour government to become a means-tested support scheme for low-income families, will be replaced by “more targeted” assistance.
Details have not yet been revealed, but it is thought there will be a top-up to the old hardship grants, which are paid out at the discretion of colleges.
The principal of Southampton City College – where half of the 1,400 students receive EMAs, mostly at the highest rate – says it would cost around £650,000 to provide the payments.
Lindsey Noble said she believes the system needs reform, but insisted it has been a major factor in a jump in the number of young people going into education and training during the ten years it has been in its current form, particularly in Southampton.
But she fears that improved participation, and higher results recorded in recent years, could be damaged if poorer students are no longer given financial help.
She said: “Southampton has a lower rate of youth unemployment than many comparable cities, even at this very difficult time, and I would say this is as a result of the joint effort of the colleges working hard with the young people and the modest financial support provided by the EMAs.
“There is a very real possibility that all this work will unravel and young people with poor prior qualifications and who live in poverty will simply stay at home and do nothing which would be such an appalling waste of talent for the city.
“I do understand that the reach of EMAs may well be a bit too extensive and some families benefit when they may well be able to manage.
“However, for the very poorest families this will be a massive blow for the hopes and ambitions they have for their children. I believe there is a case for reform but abolition is the wrong move at this time.”
The scrapping of EMAs has been one of the main reasons behind mass student demonstrations that were staged across the country yesterday.
Last month up to 100 young people – including college students and schoolchildren – staged a noisy march through Southampton city centre, a week after around 800 young people from Peter Symonds and Barton Peveril colleges demonstrated in Winchester.
Barry Hicks, principal at Itchen College, where almost half of all students also receive EMAs, said his students are upset that funding is being withdrawn.
He fears scrapping the allowance could ultimately cost the Government more.
Mr Hicks said: “There’s a lot of anger with young people over what they see as a broken contract with the older generation.
“I’m concerned less people will have the opportunity to study at college, and quite often they’re going to be able kids who could really benefit from further education.
“Without EMAs, how many kids will think they can’t go to college because their parents can’t afford it?
“I don’t know what the intention was, whether it’s just purely ‘let’s save some money here’.
“But if they’re not in education they may well be relying on the state in the way of benefits.”
At Taunton’s College, 654 students – 49 per cent of the total – receive EMAs. Principal Alice Wrighton said further education officials are now left waiting to discover what the Government is going to replace the allowance with.
She said: “We believe that all students, regardless of their family’s financial circumstances, have the right to access the high quality education that we provide, and we will do everything we can to ensure that this can continue to happen.
“However, we are reliant on additional funding from the Government to do this, and as yet, we have no clarity at all as regards the detail of the promised but more restricted new scheme to replace EMAs.”