Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Save EMA Campaign drafts court action

A legal challenge offers fresh hope to 300,000 students who face being stripped of their education maintenance allowance (EMA), campaigners said yesterday. The Save EMA Campaign announced it was drafting a court action against Education Secretary Michael Gove, arguing that his decision to axe the vital grants breached a contract. The case will be on behalf of students who began two-year courses last autumn, with a "legitimate expectation" that they would receive EMA until they had completed their studies.

More than 300,000 teenagers are in that position - half the total number receiving EMA - including around 19,000 in the North-East and a further 3,500 in North Yorkshire. The government announced it was axing EMA - weekly payments of up to £30 to help sixth formers from poorer homes stay on in education - in October, having previously stated the allowance would survive.

Hopes of a legal challenge rose when Mr Gove lost in the High Court, earlier this month, over his decision to scrap the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. That move was condemned as an "abuse of power". Significantly, lawyers have suggested the new case could target Mr Gove over a "failure to consult" before axing EMA - the very reason he lost on BSF.

James Mills, head of the Save EMA campaign, said: "We're saying, 'a deal's a deal.' These young people have signed a contract and the government should honour it. Research, by the University and College Union (UCU), shows that almost 40 per cent of students wouldn't have started their course without EMA, so that's a large amount of people who will feel betrayed by this government."

Students sign an EMA contract, which commits them to rules on attendance, punctuality and achievement in return for the payments - imposing requirements on the government, campaigners say. The campaign is working closely with Unison, the public services union, to find case studies to take to court, in the same way as six local councils spearheaded the legal action against the BSF axe.

Another legal action would further damage Mr Gove, who has also come under fire because of embarrassing U-turns over the funding of school sport and the Bookstart scheme, to encourage children to read. The Education Secretary insisted EMA had to go because its £500m cost is too high, but has yet to explain how a different scheme will operate.