• Josie Channer

Free Schools and EMA, where can we go from here ?

Updated: Aug 10, 2018

Free Schools and EMA, where can we go from here ?

As a school governor at the largest primary school in the country which is already struggling to find space to teach its children, I’m concerned about the warning by London Councils that there is a shortfall of up to 90 thousand primary school places over the next 4 years. What can local authorities do when the Government has left no options but to hope that Free Schools will meet the demand? After cutting the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) that encouraged children from the poorest backgrounds to continue their education after the age of 16, I also wonder how Labour can support our young people?

Gascoigne Primary School has over 1000 students in a borough that’s growing rapidly. It faces problems which many inner city schools have faced with up to 50% pupil mobility in a class during the school year. It has outgrown its building and yet still aspires to raise standards. It’s clear that, instead of supporting such schools, the Government is changing the education system dramatically with the expansion of Academies and FreeSchools.

In the Ward I represent Barking & Dagenham saw its first school become an Academy and there have now been two successful applications to open Free Schools. I believe that the increasing fragmentation of our school system and the promotion of competition between our schools is not the way forward to raise standards as a whole. For me, further fragmentation will ultimately lead to schools at the top getting even better and attracting more investment, while the schools at the bottom deteriorate.

Free Schools, where, in theory, any individual person or group in any building can open a school and be given greater freedom over the school curriculum and admissions policy is a concern to me. However, local authorities, such as mine, have no choice other to accept and be grateful for the extra school places they provide. After expanding all our existing school sites and exhausting all other avenues, we have now been working closely with the Free School applicants to insure that safeguards and the concerns of the community are considered. Examples of what we have been looking for include having a local authority representative on the governing board, an oversight of admissions and a curriculum policy that fails into line with local authority guidelines. I want all of our schools in our borough to succeed, which, at the moment, means positively supporting the new Free Schools in the borough. This doesn’t weaken my fears, however, about the fragmentation and competition increasing within the system.

The loss of Educational Maintenance Allowance for young people makes matters even worst. EMA helped those who came from a household income of less than £20, 000 p.a.. I’ve been following with great interest boroughs, such as Islington and Southwark, that are looking to encourage their young people into further education by reintroducing their own form of EMA. Some Further Education centres, such as Barking and Dagenham College, recognising the importance of retaining students from poorer backgrounds, provide a bursary of £49 a month to those students that were on free school meals. After leaving school at 16 I attended Barking College

and worked as a part time cleaner to help with my costs. Many of my friends had Saturday jobs, but I wonder in today’s economic climate if those types of jobs are out there anymore for our 16-18 year olds. As a teenager I found working and studying quite difficult and taking on extra hours at work would be a priority over my course because I had no choice. Education is a clear route out of poverty with those that have a Further Education qualification earning 45% more than those with only a GCSE grade A –C. I don’t want today’s young people to risk losing the opportunity of continuing in Further Education because they have to work as I had to.

Those boroughs that have reintroduced their own form of EMA, such as Tower Hamlets, have seen early signs of a continuing rise in Further Education applicants and stable retention rates. EMA was a Labour policy that really did enable our young people, in particular those who are most vulnerable, to equip themselves for the future.

The most deprived young people are being told to “get on your bike” and look for work instead of being able to stay in education. I believe that Labour can play a role in defending young people by calling for ways to reintroduce EMA. The Government seems prepared to allow children to be taught in adapted shops and warehouses, but, by taking a proactive approach to Free Schools, we can ensure that standards are maintained. This is an opportunity where we can activity stand up for education that really is for the many and not just the few.