British students in protests over allowance cut plan

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Thousands of British school pupils and college students aged 16-18 protested on Monday against a coalition government proposal to end a weekly grant paid to some students and replace it with an allowance aimed at a smaller number of students.

More than 100 peaceful protests took the form of marches, meetings, speeches at schools across England, and were organized and supported by trade unions, a spokesman for the University Colleges Union (UCU), which represents many college lecturers, said.

The coalition government, which has been in power since May 11, plans to end the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) paid to some students aged between 16 and 18.

The allowance, which can be up to 30 pounds (about 47.6 U.S. dollars) a week, is not universal and is aimed at encouraging students from families earning less than 30,000 pounds a year to stay on at school for further study after the age of 16.

A total of 643,000 students get the allowance each year, at a total cost of just over 0.5 billion pounds (about 896 million dollars).

The government announced the scheme would end after the summer of next year because it was difficult to target at needy groups. There were "considerable dead weight costs," Chancellor George Osborne said at the time.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, said on Monday that a "pupil premium" would be introduced from next summer worth 430 pounds (682.8 dollars) for each pupil from a family earning less than 16,000 pounds a year. The money would be paid to schools, which would then distribute it.

Minister for Schools Nick Gibb said: "Given the economic climate and the state of the public finances, it is only right that we should find a better, more effective way of targeting support to those young people who really need financial support to continue in education."

The leader of the UCU, General Secretary Sally Hunt, said: "The EMA is a vital lifeline for many students and can be the difference between people being able to study at college or being priced out."

The leader of the largest union for teachers, National Union of Teachers (NUT) General Secretary Christine Blower, also criticized the plan to end the EMA. She said: "If these proposals go ahead it will be a disaster for social justice and for the economy. Education is the major factor in social mobility, ending the EMA will mean that many students from less well-off backgrounds will simply not be able to countenance continuing with further education."

The protests across England -- the plan does not apply to Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland where regional governments have devolved powers over education -- were peaceful and in marked contrast to demonstrations against another government policy, raising university tuition fees.

Those protests, which involved students from many parts of Britain, had their focus on four marches and rallies in central London. All four marches ended in violence, with the final march last Thursday seeing nearly 3,000 police deployed around the Houses of Parliament as protesters occupied Parliament Square directly outside. Some protesters also attacked a car carrying the heir to the throne the Prince of Wales and his wife as they traveled to the theater through central London.

The school and college protests against the scrapping of EMA and the student protest over tuition fees have seen a return of public unrest to the streets of Britain after two decades of quiet.

The government aims to cut public spending, which is in deficit for the year 2010-11 by 149 billion pounds (about 236.6 billion dollars), by 81 billion pounds over the next four years, and has estimated that 330,000 public service jobs will have to go to achieve this.

As job losses mount and public services shrink, leading police authorities say there is likely to be a period of protests and unrest as the effect of the new coalition government's policies starts to be felt.

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