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The case for a Welsh Learning Allowance

February 25th 2021

With 16 and 17-year-olds able to vote for the first time in May’s Senedd elections, Steffan Evans sets out why the time is right to establish a Welsh Learning Allowance

A class at a Further Education College

The upcoming Senedd elections will be the first time 16 and 17 year olds will ever get to vote in Wales. There have been concerns raised however, that not enough is being done to engage with the 100,000 young people who will be getting to vote for the very first time. So what policies could the parties adopt that would appeal directly to 16 and 17 year olds?

One policy that the Bevan Foundation is calling on each party to adopt ahead of the Senedd election is to establish a Welsh Learning Allowance. For too many 16 and 17 year olds, staying on in education after their GCSEs is not an option. Whilst some financial support is available for young people through the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) this is nowhere near enough.

With the pandemic having a devastating impact on the career prospects of many young people the time is right for change. Establishing a more generous support package for young people from lower income households who wish to stay in education could not only improve their life chances but could also be a policy that appeals directly to many new voters.

What’s wrong with EMA?

EMA provides young people aged 16 to 18 from low income households with a weekly cash allowance during term time to assist them with the cost of education. There are two major problems with EMA in its current form.

The first problem is that the cash support provided through EMA is not enough. A young person in receipt of EMA is entitled to a payment of £30 a week during term time. This is unchanged from when EMA was introduced back in 2004/05. Had EMA kept up with inflation a young person in education in Wales would today be entitled to £45 a week. This means that successive Welsh Governments have cut the real terms value of EMA by a third over the last decade and a half.

This cut has real world implications. Back in the summer of 2019 the Bevan Foundation spoke with a number of young people who were entitled to EMA about their experiences. A number of the students told us that they struggled to get by on EMA. We heard from one student who said:

“You need more EMA. £30 doesn’t buy you anything. It’s crap. It’s gone by the time you cover basic costs”.

It’s not only the value of EMA that has been cut, however. A second problem with EMA is that young people in Wales must be significantly poorer than their contemporaries at the turn of the previous decade to be entitled to any support at all.

To be eligible for EMA a young person must live in a household with an income of less than £20,817 if they are the only child younger than 18 and or a household with an income of less than £23,077 if there are two or more children under 18. Had these thresholds increased in line with inflation since 2011/12 they would now be £4,000 higher.

Why establish a Welsh Learning Allowance?

The current approach to supporting young people from low income households to stay in education is clearly not working and without reform is only set to get worse as the value of EMA falls even further in real terms. This is why the Bevan Foundation believes the time has come to establish a Welsh Learning Allowance.

A Welsh Learning Allowance should be based on EMA but be improved to meet the needs of young people in education today. In practice this would mean increasing the weekly payments made under EMA and raising the eligibility threshold back to the level they were in the mid 2000s. Both the eligibility threshold and the value of the grant should then be uprated by inflation each year thereafter. Doing so could put over £500 extra into the pockets of some of the poorest learners in Wales each year.

Alongside this however, we believe that a Welsh Learning Allowance should provide additional funding to young people who need to buy equipment for their course in the form of an Essential Equipment Grant. Laptops, tools, kit and books all cost significant sums and are essential for many post 16 courses. Too many young people growing up in poverty are not able to afford all these materials and therefore have fewer opportunities than better-off learners. Providing young people a grant as part of their Welsh Learning Allowance could play a role in reducing this opportunity gap, giving all our young learners the best opportunity in life.

Engaging with young voters

With 16 to 18 year olds getting to vote for the first time this year, the time has come for all Welsh political parties to stop overlooking post 16 education. The barriers to education faced by our young learners have been forgotten about for too long. The time has come to reform the support that is available and to ensure that no young person is locked out of education just because they can’t afford to learn.

Steffan Evans is a Policy and Research Officer at the Bevan Foundation 

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