Begging your A Level teacher for an extension on your coursework can be an uncomfortable experience. Begging your teachers for a tenner so that you can afford the bus to school is probably somewhat more degrading. Tonight the education secretary, Michael Gove, announced the replacement for the EMA.
The scheme will cost 180 million, a little over a quarter of what was put into the EMA. Just 12,000 students, less than one in every hundred, will qualify for a bursary. These will be the very, very needy. Meanwhile, 90% of the cash will go to headteachers to allocate at their discretion, to help students pay for books, food and transport.
All of which makes sense when you consider the mean spirited rhetoric with which the attack on EMA was justified. “In a slip seized on by Tories”. the Daily Mail reported at the time, Andy Burnham had “conceded that the cash was not all spent on essentials but also on having fun”. Indeed he had “confessed” that students “may spend some of it on food and even the occasional time out with friends”, so that they wouldn’t be completely excluded from the social life of their peers.
It was, of course, unacceptable to the Tory Press that poorer students might be offered the chance to enjoy a bit of basic autonomy while they studied for their A Levels. And apparently it is unacceptable to the coalition government. Like Victorian commoners appealing for charity, and promising not spend any of it on liquor, poorer students will now have to go cap-in-hand to their head-teachers and convince them that they will be good and spend any money they get on books. Please sir, can I have a tenner?
Gove has said that this move “fits in with our agenda of devolving power to head teachers”. In reality, this is sucking power upwards, from low-income students – who have hitherto enjoyed fairly meagre support as a right – towards school heads who will now be expected to act as godfathers. “Headteachers”, Michael Gove tells us, “are best placed to know who needs this money”. Does he honestly believe this? And does he really imagine that students will all be happy to let their teachers in on all of their family circumstances, as a prerequisite to getting help? Without hesitation, I would far sooner hand over such information to a faceless bureaucrat.
This is about making cuts, but it is also about so much more. It is about wiping away any conception of social rights. It is about replacing the ethic of the welfare state with a more ancient – and frankly degrading – system of charity and gratitude.