The longer a policy paper, the more likely it is that it’s full of waffle. In the case of the so-called “levelling up” white paper, I don’t doubt, for a minute, the sincerity of Michael Gove, who for a long time has been interested in social mobility and is, from his own political standpoint, genuinely trying to open up opportunity.
But when you’re in a cabinet and government that holds, as its central tenet of philosophy, that it’s no business of government and the state to provide the framework for greater equality, the chances of success are zilch.
Leaving aside that much of the funding is already announced, and the rest unclear, and concentrating on the few new measures proposed, there is little that will genuinely make a difference in “levelling up” the country. The 12 national ambitions to be achieved by 2030 don’t even begin to address the intergenerational challenges and the damage caused by austerity cuts since 2010. The scope of the missions range from transport to local pride, but only two focus on transforming the lives of individuals through education. New bus routes, home ownership and spruced-up streets are important, but unless people’s lives are changed, the physical environment will begin to deteriorate once again.
The white paper recommends a “significant” increase in primary school children reaching expected standards in reading, writing and maths. We know from the report of Sir Kevan Collins, who was appointed by the government to develop plans for post-Covid recovery in the education system, that vast sums of money are needed to reverse the emergence of a divide in outcomes. But, instead of £15bn over five years, which would have made the difference, the government allocated £1.4bn.
The much-vaunted national tutoring programme got off to a stumbling, but relatively solid, start. However, it was effectively halted by the government as it tendered the contract for the second part of the programme to the cheapest provider. It would appear that from September, only 15% of the agreed take-up had actually been achieved. What is needed now is a return to clearly targeted funding for the most disadvantaged children, extending the pupil premium and adopting Collins’ recommendations in full.
Education doesn’t stopat school-leaving age, and the report sets the goal of a “significant” rise in the numbers completing high-quality skills training across the UK. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, there has been a 50% fall in spending since 2010 on adult education. Despite the government’s rhetoric on investment in skills, it will not be until 2025 that its “guarantee” of training will kick in.
The funding pot for skills from the Departments for Work and Pensions, and which has already been announced, is often aimed at attempting to fill the jobs left by the million-plus migrants who have returned home, with little emphasis on planning for the future workforce, the digital revolution or climate change.
Universities are a key driving force for economic and social renewal across the country. For young and old alike, these anchor institutions, and the knowledge transfer made possible by them, can be transformational in the most deprived communities, and areas previously reliant on heavy industry. But there is nothing in the missions to improve their lot.
In fact, government policy is actively undermining universities in the north of England. The Office for Students has been asked to mark down universities if their cohorts do not move into “skilled work” after graduation, something less available in areas outside of the south due to regional inequality. This means northern students attending university nearer home will be tempted to leave their areas for well-paid jobs elsewhere. To help make regeneration a reality, contradictions in government policy must be set aside.
To mislead people into believing that you are doing something transformational when you have no intention of committing the resources or policies to make that possible is to create greater mistrust and disillusionment. Promises of levelling up may temporarily help some Conservative MPs hold on to their seats, but at the long-term price of undermining confidence in the democratic process.