Levelling up: Plans for ‘elite’ new sixth forms and skills ‘mission’

Education and skills policies from the much anticipated levelling up white paper will also include a new 'future skills unit'.

Education and skills policies from the much anticipated levelling up white paper will also include a new 'future skills unit'.

Fifty-five areas with “weak” education outcomes will be prioritised for new “elite” sixth forms and a fresh “skills mission” will be launched as part of the levelling up white paper, the government has said.

There will also be a new “future skills unit” established, a £550 million boost to skills bootcamps over the next three years and Institutes of Technology will be able to apply for a Royal Charter.

The plans have been trailed today by the Department for Education ahead of levelling up white paper’s publication tomorrow (Wednesday).

Today’s announcement is light on detail, but the DfE claims the package will “transform education and opportunities for the most disadvantaged”.

New “elite” sixth forms instead of investment in existing FE providers

The government said it has identified 55 cold spots of the country – primarily in the north, midlands, east of England and south west – where school outcomes are the “weakest”. 

They will be known as “education investment areas” and be prioritised as the location for new specialist sixth form free schools “where there is limited provision to ensure talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to the highest standard of education this country offers”.  

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, questioned why the government wouldn’t invest in existing FE providers instead.

“We are not so sure about the idea of setting up ‘new elite sixth forms’,” he said. “This sounds like they will serve children who already do very well and could put pressure on existing provision when the simplest solution would surely be to improve the lamentable state of post-16 funding.”

Similarly, Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said he “would question what evidence there is for the need for new ‘elite sixth forms’ in our education system.”

‘Ambitious’ skills targets

The DfE said it would also set a new “skills mission”, which will target 200,000 more people in England to “help them complete high-quality training” each year by 2030, including 80,000 more completing courses in areas of England with the “lowest skills levels”.

The new target will be measured against pre-Covid (2018/19) 19+ further education and skills training achievements, a spokesperson told FE Week. The number of achievements that year was 1,467,600. For comparison, that figure was 1,040,800 for 2020/21.

The spokesperson also told us that the courses in scope to reach the new target will be subject to consultation but that the existing offer including apprenticeships, skills bootcamps, the free courses for jobs scheme and free basic skills entitlements will play a part.

More detail on which areas of the country will be categorised as having the lowest skills levels will be published in the white paper tomorrow.

More data – a new ‘future skills unit’

The education secretary will establish a new “future skills unit” to look at the “data and evidence of where skills gaps exist and in what industries”.

It will be in addition to the existing skills and productivity board, which was set up by the DfE last year to identify skills gaps and provide “expert advice” on how courses and qualifications should align to the skills that employers need post-Covid-19.

It is unclear exactly how the new future skills unit will differ from the DfE’s skills and productivity board and the local skills advisory panels.

Bootcamps expansion

Skills bootcamps will also be expanded under the government’s levelling up plans, with an additional £550 million to be invested between over the next three years.

Skills bootcamps offer free courses of up to 16 weeks, with a fast-track to an interview with an employer, in sectors such as green, digital and construction. A tender is currently live for wave three of the rollout.

Employer co-funding of bootcamps is set to be reduced for small businesses. Employers must currently pay 30 per cent towards the cost of skill bootcamp training for their employees. This will be reduced to 10 per cent for SMEs.

The DfE said prisoners can also now take advantage of skills bootcamps as part of a new trial to support them to find work on their release.

Royal Charter for ‘successful’ IoTs

The levelling up plans will also set out a government commitment to making Institutes of Technology the “pre-eminent organisation” for technical STEM education in England, through which “successful ones” may apply for a Royal Charter. 

The DfE said this will “help secure their long-term position as anchor institutions in their regions, placing them on a par with the UK’s world-leading historic universities”.  

A DfE spokesperson said the criteria and application process for Royal Charter status for IoTs will be set out in the spring.

‘Skills, schools and families are at the heart of levelling up’

Ahead of tomorrow’s white paper, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “This white paper sets out our blueprint for putting skills, schools and families at the heart of levelling up. It focuses on putting great schools in every part of the country, training that sets you up for success in a high-skilled, well-paid career and ensuring no one misses out on opportunities simply because of where they live or their family background.”

The 55 areas selected as education investment areas:







Central Bedfordshire


County Durham 








East Sussex



Isle of Wight










North Northamptonshire

North Somerset

North Yorkshire













South Gloucestershire

South Tyneside

St. Helens









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  1. Looks like tomorrow’s White Paper will be a kitchen sink of recycled slogans announcing ‘a fresh skills mission’ with ‘skills bootcamps’, ‘elite 6th forms’ in or alongside ‘new specialist sixth form free schools’ plus chartered ‘Institutes of Technology’ in 55 ‘education investment areas’ all under a Future Skills Unit targeting 200,000 more people to complete ‘high-quality training’ each year by 2030 as part of – guess what? – ‘levelling up’! Whatever of all this ever comes to any fruition, ‘multi-academy trusts’ in what sound like education development zones will further dismantle schools for privatisation while reordered academic and technical universities aim to reduce numbers of students.

  2. Linda Rose

    This sounds very similar to opportunity areas and other similar initiatives in the past. Those tended to focus on pre 16 outcomes which are a pre-requisite for academic acceptance into “elite” institutions. Whilst it is good to see some ministerial focus on post 16 which for so long has been a Cinderella to pre16 and schools, I have to agree with the AoC and ASCLEPIUS that the investment would be better placed with existing post 16 providers.

  3. In the 55 Education Investment Areas there are already 76 FE Colleges, 64 rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted, 21 involved in Institutes of Technology (several of them leading), and ALL delivering Higher Education and access to HE courses locally, despite being grossly underfunded for over a decade. Plus many high performing Sixth Form Colleges as well, many of whom have had to make painful cuts to their curriculum as funding was cut. Far better to invest in FE and provide proper funding for Colleges than mess around with new pots of money and new Sixth Forms. Come on Mr Zahawi, wake up and smell the FE coffee!