From education to employment

Stop talking about social mobility and make learning opportunities ‘hyper local’ to level up, report finds

Professor Graeme Atherton, Head of UWL’s Centre for Levelling Up

#LevellingUp needs to focus on providing better, local learning opportunities and move away from talking about social mobility if it is to improve the lives of those in areas of the Midlands and north of England, a report from the new Centre for Levelling Up at the University of West London (UWL) written in partnership with Policy Network has found.

Based on in depth discussions with education leaders in 8 ‘red wall’ areas of the country, the report “Learning about place Understanding lifelong learning and social mobility in Covid Britain“, highlights the need for a more flexible lifelong learning strategy, more localised careers support and an expansion of higher education if the government’s levelling up agenda is to be effective.

Consulting across schools, colleges, universities and local authorities over the past year, in eight areas,

  1. Blackpool
  2. Derby
  3. Oldham
  4. Peterborough
  5. Sheffield
  6. Stoke
  7. Wakefield, and
  8. Wrexham

(all towns where Labour lost seats in the 2019 general election), the research found a drastic reduction in community-based and introductory learning opportunities, which help older adults and vulnerable people to get back into learning.

Even where entry-level learning provision does exist, people are not aware what is available to them and are unable to benefit, with the pandemic only exacerbating challenges around access to careers guidance and work experience schemes. But those areas where universities are more active offer greater opportunities for those at all levels to learn. The report argues that increasing higher education provision will boost opportunity in areas where such provision does not exist.

It also finds that those working in such areas want the language of policymakers to change. Phrases such as social mobility, disadvantaged / left behind and lost generations do not describe what people want or who they are.

In a post Covid era – people want broader opportunities accessible locally and policymakers to adopt a language that means something to local people.

Professor Graeme Atherton, Head of UWL’s Centre for Levelling Up who led the report, said:

‘These are all areas characterised in the government’s levelling up agenda as being left behind by social and economic changes, with poor jobs, failing schools and out-dated infrastructure. However, the reality is more complex than this. While they all have challenges, they also have strengths.

“But to build on these strengths we need a new ‘hyper local’ approach with stable, long term investment where control is as close as possible to delivery. Short term funding for high visibility projects will not be enough. We must put education at the heart of our efforts in support of change if we are going to help people transform their futures.’

Key Recommendations

The report shows each of the places examined are complex, multi-dimensional and diverse. Levelling up ‘within’ these areas is every bit as important as ‘between’ them and other parts of the country.

The differences between and within described above is a strong message not just for Government but for Labour as well. It needs to avoid describing the places where it recently lost seats like those in this study and others as one amorphous ‘red wall’ group.

There is so much in what the participants said in the study that could inform a distinctive approach to extending educational opportunity and thus improving social outcomes.

Outlined below are a number of recommendations which taken together could form the foundations of such a new approach:

1. Bring better ‘careers’ support to where people live, study and work

For a national careers service to be effective in places such as those studied here it has to constitute networked, flexible local provision delivered alongside other educational and employment experiences – rather than an online or physical entity they have to visit.

2. Put educational opportunity at the centre of ‘levelling up’

For a strategy that ‘levels up’ to be effective it needs to connect its approach to investment in physical infrastructure, lifelong learning, education recovery and skills development together. At its centre needs to be investment in people not projects, shaped locally around the creation of opportunities to engage in learning and skill development.

3. Put flexible, entry level opportunities at heart of a national lifelong learning strategy

An ’entitlement’ to lifelong learning that only includes access to Level 3 learning in specific subject areas will not attract those least likely to learn back into education. Entry level provision, not necessarily associated directly with vocational skills nor available only at the behest of the employer, but also in community based settings is required.

4. Stop talking social mobility

Find a post Covid language to describe opportunity and progress. What success mean differs across communities and places and is being re-shaped for many by the legacy of the pandemic. A new language for inequality and progress is required that reflects this – which avoids phrases such as social mobility, disadvantage / left behind and lost generations.

5. Ensure more places have higher education provision

As Further Education Colleges do, universities in this study were actively contributing to the development of the communities in which they sit. Increasing higher education provision in places where it is underdeveloped, as part of the holistic approach described above, will have a major impact in extending educational opportunities across these communities.

6. Take a ‘hyper-local’ approach to devolving control and resources

The ability of those working across these areas to affect change are being restricted by a piecemeal approach to funding and trust. A ‘hyper local’ approach would make all initiative based funding at least 5 years, make OFTSED inspections lighter touch in the most challenged areas and give as much control as possible as close to where opportunities are delivered.

7. Support a holistic Covid learning recovery strategy

Additional learning time focused on core subjects and distributing more data/laptops is not enough enable learners hardest hit by the pandemic to recover lost progress. A more holistic approach that addresses lost careers support, confidence and work experience alongside building the capacity of all families to learn online is required.

The government’s levelling up agenda and the provision of educational opportunities

Learning about Place: Understanding lifelong learning and social mobility in Covid Britain’, was published by Professor Graeme Atherton, Head of UWL’s Centre for Levelling Up, and Dr Barry Colfer from think tank, Policy Network.

The University of West London’s Centre for Levelling Up is a new research centre focused on producing policy relevant research related to inequality.

The report focuses on one part of the government’s levelling up agenda – the provision of educational opportunities – across eight areas across the UK. In each area stakeholders from schools, colleges, higher education, local authorities and the broader private and public sector were consulted with between November 2020 and March 2021.

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