Friday, 6 January 2012

Cornwall EMA - a welcome scheme (but still with problems)

Cornwall Council’s Tory-led administration seems to have got quite touchy about any criticism of their plan to introduce a Cornish EMA or Bursary. Cabinet member Neil Burden even went to the extent of commenting on this blog about it.

A policy idea that appeared to start with a desperate attempt to come up with something interesting during Conservative Party Conference week has turned into a scheme which, whilst still significantly flawed, is an example of what Cornwall Council can do to help the less well off.

That's not to say that the process has been an easy one. I don’t think there is anyone who opposes the principle of additional support to 16 to 19 year olds who need extra help to study. But the details of the scheme have been very slow to emerge and a lot of the information that was released raised many concerns and questions.

Today we had the in-depth study of the plans and I'm very glad that most of the concerns have been addressed. There was concern that this funding was only being made available to those studying academic courses and that those on vocational courses would be ignored. In fact the funding will go to all types of level three study which includes a range of vocational study. Of course, many pupils do not study at this level but there are other forms of support available to them. They won’t be missing out but this fund should help to address the gap that did exist for higher level learners.

There is also the concern about how the money will be shared out. The money is being allocated to the schools and colleges on a per-pupil basis and they will be responsible for passing it out from there. This means we have to trust the providers to divvy it up fairly. I do have that trust, but I want to make sure that it is pupil-responsive. As an example, two students at Truro College might have very different needs. One might live nearby and need help with buying books. The other might be traveling all the way from North Cornwall and help with travel costs might be the top priority. Can the providers guarantee that they will be flexible enough to cope with both sets of needs? The distribution criteria will be submitted by the providers to the Council in the summer (before the scheme starts) and so there will be a chance to be reassured on this issue then.

There were a couple of issues surrounding cross-border pupils. We sought assurances that the money would not be given to schools or colleges on the basis of students from Devon (or further afield) who study in Cornwall and that those who come to Cornwall to study would not receive the benefit of this scheme. We got satisfactory assurances on both these matters.

However, there is still the issue of pupils from Cornwall who travel to Devon to study. In most cases this is not a real choice - it so happens that the nearest provider of their chosen course is located there. There was a lot of resistance from the administration to changing this. Quite rightly they don’t want to set up a cumbersome and costly administration procedure and want to hand the allocation process over to the providers. But that comes at a cost of excluding Cornish pupils studying in Devon. There was a lot of unease in the scrutiny committee about the failure to assist these young people. The implication is that if you need the money then you might have to travel hundreds of extra miles per week in order to receive it. In the case of those for whom the new funding is the difference between studying or not, this places a huge extra burden on them which is not going to be helpful to their studying. The committee agreed to ask the administration to keep looking for a solution - but the failure to do so until now, although regrettable, shouldn’t stop what is otherwise a good scheme.

It's so good that the other major concern is about the fact that this scheme is only being funded for two years. That happens to be the money we have left from convergence funding for disadvantaged 16-19 year olds. But if this scheme is worth doing (and I think it is) then surely it should carry on into the future.

A final point - when this scheme was first talked about, there was the proposal to have both a ‘Cornish EMA’ and a bursary for HE students. For legal reasons, the support for 16-19 year olds can’t be called an EMA and is now known as a bursary. But I asked about support for higher education students and was told that a scheme to help university level students will be proposed in the near future.

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