How important is FE to ‘levelling up’?

17 Dec 2021, 10:59



In the 2021 Queen’s Speech, the government stated that it intended to “level up opportunities across all parts of the UK, supporting jobs, businesses and economic growth”. Furthermore, the government has signified its prioritisation of levelling up, by creating the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to progress this agenda.

But how does further education tie in with levelling up, and how significant is its role?

While there may still be some ambiguity or vagueness about quite what levelling up really means in practice, one thing it clearly encapsulates is the idea of prioritising people and places that have not in recent decades received significant public investment. And that means a focus on technical and vocational education, among other things.

To further explore this alignment between FE and levelling up further, ETF commissioned some research from YouGov in November 2021. Some 1,712 UK adults were asked to identify their top three priorities for the Government to ‘achieve levelling up’.

Overall, four in 10 (40 per cent) said further education should be prioritised for achieving levelling up, when asked to select their top three. This was followed by investment in transport (33 per cent), and work-based training and CPD (32 per cent).

In contrast, just 15 per cent of the public said that higher education was a top three priority, with the same number indicating that early years education was important for levelling up.

The research also asked respondents to identify their top three priorities for enabling a ‘high-skilled, high pay economy’. Overall, half of respondents (50 per cent) said that further education should be prioritised, followed by work-based training and CPD (43 per cent), and investment in science and technology (33 per cent).

These ETF survey findings show the value to the government in making further education and training the centrepiece of its flagship levelling up policy. Although in the past universities were given top billing by policy-makers, overwhelmingly the public now believe that FE is the route to delivering economic growth and fairness.

Positively, the government has already announced a ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ in England, which enables adults aged 19 and over without an A-level or equivalent qualification to receive a free, fully-funded course. This course will be a full level 3 qualification, which is equivalent to an advanced technical certificate or diploma, or A Levels.

Furthermore, the government has made clear its ambition to prioritise, promote and expand T Levels. Given ETF’s role in T Level professional development (TLPD), we are likewise committed to playing our part in achieving this objective.

Indeed, the pandemic highlighted how much we all depend on the skills people gain in further education to make this country work. In turn, having a top-class further education system depends on recruiting, training and fairly rewarding excellent people to teach those skills.

Ultimately, further education improves social mobility, enables higher wages, and boosts productivity – something the UK has long lagged behind on. As we now move to an economic model of sustainable growth, rather than a narrow focus on GDP, the opportunities for FE to thrive are clear.

ETF will continue to work with industry and the Department for Education in supporting our sector and look forward to the government’s impending white paper on levelling up. We believe that the recruitment and retention of FE staff is a priority for enabling this important agenda.

Our sector now has a fantastic opportunity to seize the day. Let’s take it.



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  1. Andy Forbes

    Spot on! Couldn’t agree more. There are two further reasons FE is vital to levelling up. First, FE Colleges are place-based, acting as anchor institutions in defined geographies. In all the “left behind” areas of the country it’s the local FE College that reaches into local communities and businesses offering access to skills. Secondly, FE Colleges, working with university partners, deliver local HE opportunities in “cold spot” areas, and have continued to engage with disadvantaged adults – employed and unemployed – by offering part-time sub-degree pathways to higher skills. For all these reasons FE should be a critical component of any effective levelling up strategy.