Centre for Cities has called for the Levelling Up White Paper to bring all places up to their productivity potential and for health and educational outcomes across the country to converge. While the inclusion of ambitious and measurable targets across education, skills, and health is welcome, the programmes laid out aren’t sufficient.
The white paper’s mission in this area is to increase the number of qualification-focused 19+ Further Education and Skills training achievements (including apprenticeships) by 200,000 annually by 2030. 80,000 of those additional annual achievements must come from the third of areas with the lowest proportion of the population with level 3+ qualifications.
In the last decade, achievements have dropped precipitously and the strong intention to reverse this trend could be a crucial turning point. This target is one of the more attainable ones, but is under ambitious given the scale of the skills challenge.
Additionally, the plans would leave the numbers of adults completing Further Education substantially below historic levels. In 2019, over 500,000 fewer adults achieved Further Education and Skills qualifications compared with 2014.
Centre for Cities has called for a large increase in adult training expenditure as a proportion of GDP, from 5% to 7%, and for a focus on basic skills through a system such as Singapore’s voucher scheme. Under this system all adults with qualifications below level 2 (equivalent to a good GSCE) would receive vouchers for training.
The Lifetime Skills Guarantee announced in 2021 and referenced in the white paper could be a substantial step in driving this programme. Under this scheme approved level 3 qualifications have been made available for free to adults without a level 3 qualification, and will expand to be available to all adults who earn less than the National Living Wage. If well implemented, this programme could be particularly impactful in cities such as Hull and Bradford, where more than half of adults between the ages of 25 to 64 do not have A-levels or equivalent qualifications.
In education, the target is to have 90% of students reaching expected standard at key stage 2 by 2030, and for the worst performing areas to have their scores increase by a third. It’s welcome to see an ambitious target related to this stage of education, as there are substantial knock-on effects of educational outcomes at this age.
However, in 2019 only 65% of students reached expected standard, with the best performing local authorities – the City of London and Richmond-upon-Thames – only reaching 82% and 81%. The percentage of students in poorly performing areas reaching expected standard was 62% in 2019. To increase this figure by over a third would mean increasing it to above the current level of the two best performing local authorities in just 8 years.
The resources and policies being deployed show some promise, but seem insufficient to accomplish the targets set out. Recent school funding formulae changes may have decreased funding to schools in the most deprived areas, and so interventions must be substantial if they are to meaningfully narrow the gap in student outcomes. Additionally, the students who will be evaluated in 2030 are currently around two or three years old, and it is difficult to see the interventions being implemented rapidly enough to have the required impact on their education in earlier years.
The white paper has promised to learn from the Opportunity Areas programme and it hints at further investment for newly established Educational Investment Areas (EIAs), which will cover the worst performing third of upper tier local authorities. Centre for Cities has previously called for an expansion of the Opportunity Areas programme, but more investments to EIAs are required. The programmes currently on offer to EIAs include teacher retention payments, and prioritization of these areas for new sixth-form free schools.
The white paper also strongly advocates for underperforming schools in EIAs to join multi-academy trusts (MATs) but it is not clear how drastic the impact these MATs can make on educational outcomes.
Though productivity will vary across the UK as regions play different roles in the UK economy, there is no reason health outcomes should vary so drastically. The white paper aims to increase healthy life expectancy (HLE) at birth by five years by 2035, and narrow the gap between the highest and lowest areas by 2030.
However, there is a question of the scale of ambition as changes in HLE at birth have been flat for much of the past decade.
The difference in HLE between the highest and lowest deciles stood at over 18 years in 2019, with males born in the most deprived decile only expected to live 52.3 years of their lives in good health. The stated ambition must not be to merely narrow this gap, but to narrow this gap substantially with both targeted interventions and through broader reductions of economic disparities.
Substantial investments in healthcare are required, and the white paper does point to targeted healthcare interventions such as NHS Core20PLUS5 as well as the upcoming White Paper on Health Disparities. The Levelling Up White Paper discusses a number of ongoing and upcoming programmes which aim to change behaviour surrounding preventable risk factors, such as obesity, and smoking, but could go further in recognizing that disparate health outcomes are also result of broader socioeconomic disparities.