This is one of a pair of posts. This one declares and explains my personal biases on this topic. The other one looks at the unanswered questions after the tuition fees vote.
When I was 16 years old I lived in hostels for homeless teenagers. Three of them, altogether, during the years I was studying for my A-levels. At that time – I believe it’s still true now, too – if you were between 16 and 18 and in full-time education you qualified for Income Support, Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit. No Jobseeker’s – you weren’t expected to work as well. That was lucky.
I received a grand total of £43.17 each week in cash. I had to go to the post office every Thursday with my benefit book and ID, sign the tokens, and take my money. I had a bank account – half the girls I lived with did not – and I tried to put £20 into the bank for later in the week, for bus fares and food and bits and pieces. £7 electricity, £7 gas, both on pre-payment cards. When the energy company hiked its fees one winter I had to pick one or the other. No hot water or heating for six months. £4 for the nominal rent I had to pay on top of benefits. £5 on food. I walked everywhere I could.
But I went to college. I went, not because I thought it was going to make me richer in the long run or for any sort of gain beyond loving to learn. I wanted to go to university to learn more. But I would have had to choose between bus fare and food, if it wasn’t for the Education Maintenance Allowance.
I was one of the first, a keen member of the pilot group in Birmingham who were given £30 a week to stay in school, and bonuses at the end of each term for attainment. That nearly doubled my income, that £30. I could afford more than one meal a day. I could get the bus to and from college. I could buy pens and folders and paper and books, saving £5 a week for a trip to Waterstones and coming home and laying them out on the floor, thick papery rectangles, full of stories, gateways into worlds. I saved up and bought a phone. I stayed alive, and I had hope, because I had my education and I was going to go to university, in the end, and I could study at night with my belly full.
Maybe my education wasn’t worth it. I didn’t do science or engineering or any of the subjects that are supposed to be valuable to the country, the ones deemed worthy of keeping their budgets. I couldn’t afford the train fare to go to open days for universities but I got into Cambridge to do English. I didn’t go, because I wanted to write. In the end I did American Literature with Creative Writing at UEA – a world-class course. It took two years working odd jobs after my A-levels before I got there, before I’d saved up a pot I could use in emergencies, but I got there. I worked for two of the three years I was at uni to make ends meet. That was just before tuition fees. I wouldn’t have gone if I’d had to pay any more. I couldn’t have faced the debt.
There are figures out there that suggest the EMA wasn’t effective enough, that most kids would have stayed on at college anyway. Maybe I’m a total statistical outlier; that’s fine. But for me the EMA wasn’t just about retention rates. It was about self-esteem. Would I have accessed a “hardship fund”? Maybe, but I would have had an even harder time telling myself I was entitled to it. Would I have got it if it’d meant filling in more forms, more figures, more time spent proving I was poor enough and well-intentioned enough to qualify? I doubt it.
And it was about attainment and attendance, too. Not just going, but paying attention and staying on the ball. Teachers could and did refuse to sign the forms if I acted up. That’s horribly punitive – none of the other kids had £30 taken away for playing up in class – but it got me to do my homework, even at times when there was so much else going on in my world that concentrating was next to impossible.
And it meant being free from fear that I would end up eating nothing but tinned peaches from the hostel donation cupboard for weeks just as my exams started, because my benefits had a hiccup.
Perhaps I would have stayed on at college on £43.17 a week, because I wanted it so hard. But I doubt, with all the extra worry and fear, that I would have gotten the grades I did. And I wouldn’t be here, now.
This blog is a direct consequence of the EMA. Whose voices are going to be missing from the conversation in 10 years’ time, now the EMA is gone?