On the 2nd February 2022, the Government released their White Paper report providing details of the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda which was promised by Boris Johnson during his general election campaign in July 2019.
Described as the flagship policy of the government, the paper promises to level up ‘left behind’ areas of the UK and to shift power towards the North, the Midlands, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through a series of 12 ‘missions’. In the publication of this document and through the nominal transformation of The Ministry of Housing, Community and Local Government to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the government have placed geographical inequality at the top of its agenda.
We ask the question of how far this report and subsequent policy is likely to impact the educational landscape and where it may, or may not, be found wanting.
Educational Aims and Promises
To summarise, in brief, the plans laid out for the education and skills sector in the ‘Levelling Up’ White Paper, the Government plan to:
- Invest in 55 new Education Investment Areas (EIAs) identified as educationally deprived with the promise that ‘more intensive investment will be available across some EIAs to tackle wider issues that may be limiting school improvement’ (pg.xxii)
- Introduce a Retention Payment for well-performing teachers (elsewhere described as a ‘pay to stay’ scheme)
- Continue to boost the development of partnerships between underperforming schools and strong Multi Academy Trusts (MATs)
- Introduce a number of sixth form free schools to ensure that talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to a post-16 education provider with a track record of sending students to top universities
- Produce a digital education service to be made freely available online, named the UK National Academy
The aim: by 2030, 90% of primary school children will achieve the expected standards in reading, writing and maths.
In the skills sector, the Government plan to:
- Invest in local further education colleges, introduce Local Skills Improvement Plans and build nine new Institutes of Technology to help employers to access a workforce with the specific, technical skills they require
- Introduce an In-Work Progression offer to help those in low-income work to better their opportunities, including £1.3bn committed to employment support for disabled people, £560mcommitted to the Multiply scheme to provide numeracy courses for adults and a commitment to ensure that 200 000 more people complete high quality skills training annually
The aim: to ensure that more people are encouraged to complete high quality skills training to fill gaps in the market and to allow people to progress to higher-paid roles.
Rhetorical Battle: Six Points of Contention between the Government and the Shadow Cabinet
Here, we focus on six points of debate surrounding the report to evaluate its impact on the education of children of school-age, including its focus, funding, locality, consideration of external factors, use of evidence and measuring of outcomes.
As for many, the report’s close focus on tackling inequalities, gaps and ‘spatial differences’ (p.62) in educational attainment and skills levels is welcomed by Whizz Education, who have monitored disparities in Maths-Age™ across and between classrooms since 2004.
Riding a wave of research into geographical inequalities since the pandemic, such as the IFS Deaton Review, the report is right to foreground differences in educational opportunity as an issue to be tackled for the benefit of everyone. It is surely a positive that the government can now be held accountable for their promise to ‘thread’ social mobility through their policy objectives.
However, the scope of the report is vast and covers everything from railways and infrastructure to housing, community empowerment and wellbeing.
For decades, the widening gap in abilities between the most affluent students and their disadvantaged peers has been at the centre of policy reform, but to no avail as the gap shrunk, stagnated and then widened. Again, the broad focus of the report means that resources are spread thinly and the impetus for educational improvement, specifically, is diluted.
It has been argued that no new funding has been allotted to the White Paper and its twelve missions.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), is firm in stating that this ‘White Paper does not provide sensible solutions to the lack of school and college funding’ because more free schools and colleges do not get to the roots of the problem.
Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan and Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, rejects Michael Gove’s description of the effects of the report as ‘King’s Cross-style regeneration’. She does so on the basis that the project to regenerate King’s Cross took three times the budget made available in the White Paper. The charity Centre for Cities also indicates that financial ‘interventions must be substantial if they are to meaningfully narrow the gap in student outcomes’.
While praising the desire for levelling up, Lisa Nandy acknowledges that the government is simply responding to problems of its own making by dealing out ‘small pots’ of funding that ‘give back what has been taken since the Prime Minister took office’ in twenty or so places. Funding responds – with far too little urgency – to years of austerity and the effects of ‘brain drains’ which have left local authorities with 15% less spending power than in 2009.
The funding of schools currently sits at the levels of 2010 with deprived areas potentially receiving a smaller cut than ever in real terms, according to the National Audit Office.
The White Paper laudably accepts responsibility for the underfunding of education in certain areas, but as it stands lacks the financial backing to make good on its promise of a reversal of wrongs.
Whizz Education agrees with the Government that educational solutions must be applied with an awareness of the unique challenges faced in different contexts.
Hence, the desire to collaborate ‘with devolved administrations and local leaders’ (pg.186) to devise individual uses of the Levelling Up Fund is likely to be profitable, especially in areas where ‘wider issues… may be limiting school improvement’ (pg.xxii).
However, a focus on ‘place’ rather than ‘people’ is worrying for some who recognise that inequalities are often greatest within rather than between areas. The places deemed ‘left behind’ by the report are neither those most impacted by the pandemic, nor those with the greatest levels of poverty or income deprivation, but simply those with low output.
There have been cynical suggestions that Boris’ government are targeting newly conservative areas with policies on immigration, industry and skills. Ultimately, central government will still be allotting funds that provide the impetus for local action.
Finally, the impact of introducing free schools and of building strong Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) within areas is of unknown efficacy. Without expertise and support these interventions may simply hand the opprobrium for failure to local authorities.
It is a good thing that improvements to education across the country are being embedded with an awareness that policy must also ‘tackle wider issues’ (pg.186). A child’s attainment is now, more than ever, impacted by factors external to the quality of bricks-and-mortar teaching available to them.
Gillian Keegan, Government Minister for Skills, rightly cites skills education as a route out of poverty for the one in eight workers that experience it.
However, the Levelling Up Report introduced in the Queen’s Speech failed to introduce the social care reform that many feel will make a real difference.
Just as universal WiFi is close to useless for those without access to the appropriate hardware, more buildings cannot increase attendance, raise attainment, or override certain prohibiting barriers to accessing education.
Dr Mary Bousted sums it up when she states that ‘the silence around child poverty will deeply frustrate heads and teachers’.
A commitment to using data and research to drive innovation in the educational sector is an exciting development proposed by the Levelling Up paper, including a promise to improve subnational statistics and models of visualisation to better target resources (pg.123).
Following on from the ‘success of the Education Endowment Foundation… the UK Government will work with academics and industry experts to test and trial how best to design evaluation of local interventions and introduce more experimentation at the policy design stage.’ (pg.155)
Nevertheless, much of the data already exists and it is hoped that no further hesitation prevents real change, such as the introduction of effective and quality EdTech tools into classrooms with the appropriate teacher training.
Finally, it is of vital importance to effectively track the outcome of programmes and policies in order to course correct – such is the principle on which Maths-Whizz is run.
The Levelling Up report claims to introduce plans which are ‘clear, measurable and actionable’ (pg.xi). Certainly, it is possible to ensure that 200 000 more people than the previous year complete skills training, but it is also important to take note of the quality and transformational effect of this training.
Chris Lloyd, Chief Features Writer for The Northern Echo worries that there are few metrics by which to measure the success of the scheme.
Whizz Education’s Reservations and Recommendations
Based on our work on the ground with schools, parent testimonials and the data we collect from our Maths-Whizz tool here are Whizz Education’s key reservations and recommendations regarding the report:
- Increased funding, free schools, MAT partnerships and online academies will only make an educational difference if the teachers that implement and make us of the resources are correctly trained and supported.
There is no silver bullet solution to educational inequality but equipping teachers to adapt to new circumstances is essential.
One-off retention payments are unlikely to provide a lasting impetus to work under difficult conditions and, along with the National Education Union, Whizz Education agree that ‘the DfE must do much better to understand what supports and retains teachers and boosts effective teaching… this has to involve real action to address teacher workload and pay’.
The lack of focus on teaching training is concerning.
- EdTech tools like Maths-Whizz are evidence-based, provably effective and a cheaper and more scalable solution to educational inequality than, for example, a National Tutoring Programme.
Unfortunately, the report lends little time to exploring potential, innovative solutions to perennial problems in the sector through technological investment or advancement, bar a future promise of further R & D.
EdTech tools must be considered a mainstream solution.
- The focus upon improving social mobility has to be more than gestural, with a strong commitment to ending poverty and allowing access to a holistic education for all.
A focus upon the economic need for skills education to fill existing gaps, rather than upon an education that will produce a diverse and fulfilled labour market in the long-term, is something to keep an eye on.
News of a minimum GCSE requirement to enter University was announced weeks after the Levelling Up report, prompting fears that social mobility is only nominally on the agenda.
Commitment to allowing all children access to a quality and advanced education must be total.
In all, the Levelling Up report has the potential to improve educational provision in the poorest areas of the UK. As is noted by the government, the White Paper is just the start.
Provided that funding is levelled towards research, development, infrastructure and training in the long-term and that a sense of duty to ‘level up’ flows ‘through central and local government, through MPs and their local offices, philanthropists, volunteers, schools, GPs and other community leaders’ (pg.13) the effect could be brilliant and place-based.
But, as Keir Starmer noted in Parliament, the scale and urgency of that which is required has been overlooked and a transformational, national strategy for change neglected.