Levelling Up: Ambushed by waffle 

Editorial: Has the levelling up white paper lived up to the hype for FE and skills?

Editorial: Has the levelling up white paper lived up to the hype for FE and skills?

2 Feb 2022, 19:00

It takes more than rhetoric to transform a country. 

The Conservatives have been dining out on ‘levelling up’ since they elected Boris Johnson as leader. It’s been a handy catchphrase despite vociferous criticism for its lack of substance.

So the drawn out wait for sight of a comprehensive, transformative levelling up strategy raised expectations high. The hype was real.

Now we’ve had sight of the full document, many in the sector will be feeling unfulfilled. 

More than that … people are angry. 

The Department for Education trailed plans to open new 16-19 sixth forms yesterday. Their press notice literally described “new elite sixth forms” that will be opened up across the country as a headline contributing policy to levelling up. 

The sector’s sighs of exasperation were palpable. Yet again, this government’s approach to education reform is setting up new institutions. Lessons have not been learned from the closures, dissolutions and forced mergers of university technical colleges, national colleges and studio schools over the years. Then there’s evidence, like the AoC’s 2020 report on the impact of competition in post-16 education and training which points clearly to competition “undermining sufficiency, efficiency, quality and equality”.

The only certain beneficiaries here are the lawyers and professional services firms. 

More than that though, the idea of ‘elite’ academic achievement being the pinnacle of educational achievement is deeply problematic, not least at a time when the skills system is in the midst of reforms to technical education and training. Perhaps that’s one reason why the word ‘elite’ had disappeared from policy proposals when the full document was published today.

It looks a lot like Michael Gove, as secretary of state for levelling up, is once again calling the shots at the Department for Education. 

In the past, Gove has had a habit of shouting down criticism of his academic-first approach to education policy. “How dare you say that young people from disadvantaged communities shouldn’t get a fair shot at the best university education” he would sensationally say if he reads this.

Yet, introducing even more competition in the funding-starved post-16 system risks taking precious resource away from the opportunities of the very people he proposes to be acting in the interests of. I find it hard to believe that Nadhim Zahawi, who introduced himself to the sector as a secretary of state that would “follow the evidence”, is comfortable with this approach at all. 

Elsewhere, one of the government’s 12 levelling up missions was to boost the number of adults completing FE and skills training by 200,000 a year up to 2030. Forty per cent of those, 80,000, should come from fifty local authorities identified as the lowest skilled. 

Great – the decline in adults participating in education and training has been severe and it’s about time there was a serious plan to tackle it. 

But that’s not what we’ve got. There was a list of projects and programmes; lines we’ve seen before about bootcamps, LSIPs, IoTs and the free level 3 offer. Disappointingly, there were no new ideas.

Except perhaps plans to hand what’s left of the adult education budget to local areas that want it. But devolution, whether that’s to a combined authority mayor, an employer representative body or one of the new county deals announced today, can’t be an end in of itself. 

There’s an opportunity now, with the 200,000 a year target for example, for the centre – DfE – to introduce some much needed accountability and transparency here. There is a balance to be found between the flexibilities that colleges and providers have enjoyed by being part of a devolved adult education system while also demonstrably contributing to national skills priorities.

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