Cash cuts threat to our kids

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CONTROVERSIAL plans to scrap college grants for thousands of Sunderland’s poorest teenagers would have a “dire” impact on the city, it has been claimed.

MPs were today debating the proposed axing of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which provides weekly payments to help young Wearsiders remain in education.

Yesterday Washington and Sunderland West MP Sharon Hodgson tabled a petition of 700 names, collected by students at the City of Sunderland College, against plans to remove the funding for 16- to 19-year-olds.

The petition calls for the Government to reconsider phasing out the allowance, which provides grants of up to £30 a week to help towards travel and course costs.

The move to axe the fund, due to be voted on today, was today condemned by Sunderland and East Durham Education leaders.

Angela O’Donaghue, principal at City of Sunderland College, said: “We have been told that from the £3million that was given to our pupils in EMA only 10 per cent of that is now available, just £300,000, a figure that is obviously inadequate.”

The college estimates the number of 17-year-olds not in education could rise to up to 25 per cent as a result.

MS O’Donaghue added: “The impact for the city will be dire, and the speed at which it is happening is quite shocking. If ever there was a recipe for future social unrest, this is it.”

The Department of Education argues the fund in its current form is too expensive to maintain.

But MP Sharon Hodgson said the grants remained a lifeline to many teenagers in the city.

She added: “A large share of the students who receive EMA are from households that are really struggling to make ends meet, and EMA is often the difference between those students having to get a full-time job to support their family and being able to stay in education or training, increasing their chances of making a good career for themselves when they eventually leave.

“The Government simply don’t get how much EMA means for students and families in Sunderland, and they’re refusing to listen when we tell them.”

East Durham College Principal, Stuart Wesselby, said: “I believe that the Department for Education has made the wrong decision and that disadvantaged young people will suffer as a result of this decision and that ministers’ ambitions to raise the participation age to 18 will fail.”

The principal at the Peterlee-based college said 84 per cent of its students receive an EMA.

He said: “EMAs are restricted to low-income households, and predominantly taken up by those with low achievement levels at school, those from ethnic minorities and those from single-parent families, so are a vital tool for increasing social mobility.

“Whilst I accept that these are difficult times financially, I believe that financial support for young people continuing their education and training is a valuable investment towards creating a sustainable future for us all.”

A spokesman for the Department of Education said: “Recent research for Educational Research found that almost 90 per cent of young people receiving the EMA believed they would have still participated in the courses they were doing had they not received it.”