From education to employment

Levelling Up and Education: Lots of Stuff but Little Substance

Geoff Barton, General Secretary, ASCL

The truth is that, in England, we have a good education system, but frankly it isn’t yet good enough for every child from every background. It’s still too much of a postcode lottery.

And if you compare education in England with those international big boys we’re supposed to measure ourselves against – such as Finland and Shanghai – then education in our country is be-devilled by one particular problem. It’s the achievement gap between young people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Here’s how the renowned think tank the Education Policy Institute described the problem in its 2019 annual report. It said:

‘Over recent years, there has been a dramatic slowing down in the closure of the disadvantage gap, to the extent that the five-year rolling average now suggests that it would take 560 years to close the gap.’

Levelling Up the Achievement Gap

Even in normal pre-Covid times, at the current rate of progress, it was going to take more than 500 years to narrow the gap between young people’s performance in our most advantaged and disadvantaged communities. The level of challenge is simply eye-watering. All of which suggests that our education system needs a serious overhaul if it’s to be something that serves young people from every background. Surely, if levelling up is to be anything other than a bit of government rhetoric, this White Paper is the moment to shape how education will be improved across the country?

A Disappointing White Paper

But what we got is largely disappointing. There’s talk of a national mission to eradicate ‘illiteracy’ and ‘innumeracy’ by 2030. That date hardly suggests the degree of urgency that’s needed. And simply plucking a target for primary texts out of thin air is hardly telling us how we will raise standards. There’s nothing about how we recruit more teachers, what they’ll do differently, or what extra resources there might be to help children to learn.

Education Investment Areas for Pre-16 Provision

The announcement of 55 new ‘Education Investment Areas’ sounds like a rehash of existing ideas, creating education action zones in areas deemed as ‘cold spots’. Within them, it seems, will be new sixth forms which the government’s press office describes as ‘elite’. There’s other stuff too – a suggestion that schools rated as ‘requiring improvement’ might be forced to join multi-academy trusts. And there are some ideas for better careers education.

Education fit for the 21st Century

But, all in all, ASCL believes all the hype of levelling up will leave lots of us feeling disappointed. Here was a chance to make teaching a high status, 21st century profession. Here was a chance to develop and celebrate the potential of all our young people. Here was a chance to show how technology could be part of the transformation of education as it has been in health.

Instead, there’s a long document, some of it apparently cut and pasted from previously abandoned government policies and papers. The words ‘missed opportunity’ instantly spring to mind.

Our recent Blueprint for a Fairer Education System makes a series of proposals for how we could take our currently good education system and make it world-class, including suggesting changes to the curriculum so that skills and technical education are given higher priority.

Recommendation 1

We think our over-heavy qualifications system should be simplified, especially at GCSE. We think that the way that schools and colleges are measured – through performance tables and Ofsted inspections – could be made more humane, in order that we can recruit and retain the best teachers and leaders at the schools and colleges in the communities that need them the most.

Recommendation 2

Whilst there will be some parents who will welcome super selective sixth forms, it seems a bit of a distraction from what the country needs. Many of us aren’t convinced that we need more young people competing to get top grades to get to universities. We think we need to break free from years of educational snobbery and celebrate a range of other routes – such as apprenticeships and vocational and technical qualifications.

Recommendation 3

We need to refine the language around a more positive and uplifting vision. Aren’t those words ‘illiteracy’ and ‘innumeracy’ pretty problematic? They refer to children in Year 6 – the final year of primary school – who haven’t met national standards. That’s very different to being either illiterate or innumerate, or both.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary, ASCL

Post-16 Education and Skills: Levelling Up Everyone, Everywhere

Campaign for Learning’s paper Post-16 Education and Skills: Levelling Up Everyone, Everywhere, is a collection of 18 articles and recommendations by leading stakeholders and thinkers across the post-16 education and skills sector.  

The paper covers six key considerations for the Levelling Up agenda – national and place based strategies, young people, lifelong training, lifelong learning and post-16 providers. 

As the articles show, from the perspective of post-16 education and skills policy, levelling up is about people as well as places – the policy canvas is vast, the perspectives diverse and the insights important.

Together, our authors demonstrate the need for strong, nationally based as well as place based strategies if everyone, everywhere aged 16 and over are to level up through education and skills’ 

Part 1: Levelling Up and National and Place

  • Andy Westwood, Professor of Government Practice, University of Manchester -  Levelling Up and the Department for Education  
  • Sam Freedman, Research Fellow, Institute for Government  – Levelling Up and Post-16 Education and Skills  
  • Fiona Aldridge, Head of Skills Insight, West Midlands Combined Authority  – Levelling Up the West Midlands by 2030  
  • Mark Hilton, Policy Director, London First  – Levelling Up London by 2030  

Part 2: Levelling Up and Young People

  • Geoff Barton, General Secretary, ASCL - Levelling Up and Education: Lots of Stuff but Little Substance  
  • Sam Tuckett, Senior Researcher, Education Policy Institute  – Levelling Up 16-19 Education   
  • Becci Newton, Director of Public Policy and Research, IES  – Levelling Up Participation by 16-18 Year Olds  
  • Kathleen Henehan, Senior Policy and Research Analyst, Resolution Foundation  – Levelling Up 18-24 Year Olds in England   

Part 3: Levelling Up and Lifelong Training

  • Olly Newton, Executive Director, The Edge Foundation - Placing Vocational Education at the Heart of Levelling Up   
  • Mandy Crawford-Lee, Chief Executive, UVAC  – Higher Technical Education, Higher & Degree Apprenticeships and Levelling Up  
  • Ewart Keep, Emeritus Professor, University of Oxford  – The Role of Employer Training in Levelling Up  

Part 4: Levelling Up and Lifelong Learning

  • Stephen Evans, Chief Executive, L&W  – Levelling Up in England through Lifelong Learning   
  • Susan Pember, Policy Director, HOLEX  – Levelling Up as a Nation of Lifelong Learning  
  • Simon Parkinson, Chief Executive, WEA  – The Future of Adult Learning is in the Hands of Local Leaders  

Part 5: Levelling Up and Post-16 Providers

  • David Hughes, Chief Executive, Association of Colleges  – Well-Funded Colleges to Serve Every Community   
  • Nick Hillman, Director, HEPI   – A ‘Higher Education Institute’ in Every Community   
  • Chris Hale, Director of Policy, Universities UK  – Levelling Up and Widening Participation into Higher Education   
  • Jane Hickie, Chief Executive, AELP  – Levelling Up is as much about People as Places   

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