Social Justice

Students in east London will be paid to go to school as mayor brings back EMA amid cost of living crisis

Tower Hamlets, where the bursaries have been reintroduced, has the highest level of child poverty in the UK

Students in a classroom

Tower Hamlets Council is bringing back the EMA payment for students. Image: Sam Balye on Unsplash

Teenagers in one of the most deprived areas of England will be paid to attend school after the council brought back the education maintenance allowance (EMA) to help amid the cost of living crisis.

Tower Hamlets Council has earmarked £500,000 from its reserves to provide 1,250 16- to 19-year-old students from low-income families with a £400 payment to help with the costs that come with staying in further education.

The plans, put forward by mayor Luftur Rahman and his Aspire party, were signed off by Tower Hamlets cabinet members on Wednesday, the same day Labour’s Council of Skills Advisers said a future Labour government should bring back the EMA.

The means-tested UK-wide bursary scheme was first launched in 2004 by Tony Blair’s government, and supported almost one in three 16- to 19-yea- olds with payments of £10, £20 or £30 a week. The government scrapped the scheme for pupils in England in 2011 as part of David Cameron’s austerity measures, however it is still offered in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Rahman, who was this year re-elected as mayor of Tower Hamlets having been removed in 2015 by an electoral court, said he was “absolutely thrilled” to reinstate the bursary. He said he hopes it will “help minimise the financial challenges for young people pursuing further education”.

“EMA can make all the difference to a student, and help change the course of a young person’s life. It’s the ability to travel to college and gain qualifications, whether it be an apprenticeship or to get to university,” he said. 

“Wealth or class should never stand in the way of opportunity, which is why I am making this worthy investment in the young people of Tower Hamlets.”

The council said the funds, which will come from council reserves, are “particularly important” given the cost of living crisis.

One student who received EMA in 2004 while at sixth form told the Big Issue it was a “lifeline” to cover costs, as well as a “helpful incentive to turn up”. 

“Given we’re in a cost of living crisis and families are really struggling to get by, this seems like a pretty sensible and relatively inexpensive way to improve things for low-income households” he continued. 

With Britain in the grips of the worst cost of living crisis since the 1950s and budgets becoming increasingly stretched, there has been a rise in teenagers being pressured to start paying rent and provide financial support to their families.

Research from UK Youth found that children as young as 10 are acutely aware of the rising cost of living, with 47 per cent of those aged 10 to 25 viewing financial pressures as one of the top five challenges they’ll face in the next year.

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The east London borough has the highest level of child poverty in the UK, with every 17 children in a class of 30 living in a low-income family. 

This is the second time Rahman has reinstated the scheme as mayor. He also did so during his first term when EMA was initially scrapped.

Tower Hamlets will also offer The Mayor’s University Bursary Award to help local undergraduate students with university costs. Up to 400 students will be able to apply for a £1,500 grant. Payments for both schemes will be issued directly to the young people and can be applied for via the council’s website.

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