Ironically, given the title, the Levelling Up White Paper is oddly unbalanced. The twelve ‘missions’ set out within it, and to be achieved by 2030, are as close as this Government has to a plan but some are wildly unrealistic and others strangely unambitious. The education “mission” falls into the former camp.
The ‘Education and Skills’ Missions
There is simply no way 90% of primary school children will be meeting reading, writing and numeracy standards in that timespan unless the tests are changed. This is especially the case given that there is no extra funding on offer to help schools achieve this goal. By contrast the adult skills “mission” is anaemic. Meeting it merely requires an additional 200,000 people a year on formal training courses, which would only replace around a quarter of the places lost due to funding cuts over the last decade.
Wider Education and Skills Policies
The policy proposals linked to each mission also feel out of kilter. A ragbag of gimmicks, restatements of existing policy, and a few genuinely important changes. It’s not really surprising given the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) had limited support from No 10 and hostility from the Treasury. Most of the important stuff relates to things that are in DLUHC’s direct control, while the long lists of tangential or minor policies read like other Departments doing the bare minimum while keeping any juicy announcements for themselves.
Most of the other policy content was either already known or builds on existing initiatives. Some of these are interesting, and potentially valuable, but small scale, such as the ongoing development of Institutes of Technology or Supported Internships for young people with additional needs. Others, like the adult numeracy scheme Multiply, announced at the Spending Review, still lack enough detail to be able to evaluate.
16-19 Education and Skills
Probably the most discussed announcement in the post-16 space, the offer of ‘elite’ sixth forms to lower skilled parts of the country, falls squarely into the tangential category. A small number of new highly selective institutions will only help a few young people, and the ones that are helped would likely have done well anyway. It also undermines the local colleges that the vast majority of students will still attend. Local pride is not helped by being told you’re not part of the elite.
Coherence through Devolution
But if you squint hard enough there’s the outline of a coherent strategy behind the tombola of seemingly disconnected policies. The key to this is the devolution framework which will give more local areas, over time, control of the adult skills budget. This has to be a sensible reform given these areas are also being tasked with boosting local economies and creating partnerships between business and educational institutions. It would be strengthened by folding in more of the 50 skills and employment related funding streams that are currently on offer from central government.
In addition there is the new Shared Prosperity Fund which offers ongoing allocations of revenue and capital funding to local areas to invest in communities, local businesses and skills. This should act as a genuinely flexible resource that can be used both to build greater demand for specific skills and fund their supply via local colleges and universities (which are critical to such efforts despite being largely absent from the White Paper).
Lifetime Skills Guarantee
The second ‘prong’ of the strategy is greater flexibility on the demand side via the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, which has been extended to allow everyone earning below the Living Wage to take a further Level 3 qualification, alongside anyone who doesn’t already have one. This is a sensible acknowledgement that people may need to re-train but again could be extended more broadly to include anyone on Universal Credit and potentially even all basic rate taxpayers. Additional qualifications can increase earnings from a far higher starting point than below living wage.
Lifelong Loan Entitlement
By 2025 we should see the introduction of further flexibility via the Lifelong Loan Entitlement which, if implemented well, should offer significantly greater access to shorter higher education courses for adults who do not have a degree, by opening up the student loan system. There are some big policy questions that still need to be answered about this policy, such as how shorter courses will connect into the qualifications framework but the principle is an important one.
Kernels of Change
Had the White Paper focused on the combination of the greater devolution and more demand side flexibility for people who live in areas that need levelling up, it would have had a much stronger narrative. We have to hope that it is on these factors that attention focuses in the coming years, rather than the gimmick policies that will just distract. Taken as a whole the White Paper is confused and unrealistic. But within it there are kernels of change that could make a big difference.
Build on devolution of adults skills funding by folding in some of the 50 other central government funding streams for adult skills or employability. Over time look at whether it makes sense to transfer accountability for further education institutions to local areas rather than hold centrally with the Department for Education.
Expand the Lifetime Skills Guarantee to all basic rate taxpayers to allow more people to retrain even if they have a Level 3 qualification. Doing so would also make the Lifelong Loan Entitlement more effective as more people would be able to take free qualifications that set them up for the short higher education courses they want to secure a loan for.
Establish a more ambitious mission for skills that is based on the number of people with qualifications at each level up to postgraduate by 2030. There is no reason to be so unambitious around adult training given how important it is to the wider Levelling Up agenda and it’s important not just to focus on the numbers doing courses but increasing the overall skills profile of the country over time.
Sam Freedman, Research Fellow, Institute for Government
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