Kieran Cooke: Levelling up cannot be all things to all people. Here are some of the challenges of turning soundbite into reality.

1 Jun

Kieran Cooke is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue. This article represents the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Bright Blue.

The Prime Minister announced last month that the Government will publish a white paper on levelling up later this year. Also, in the in the recent Queen’s Speech, the Government committed to “level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom”. However, is levelling up actually an ambition that can be achieved or will it remain simply a vote-winning slogan?

If the Government is going to actually “level up” the country, it needs to know what it is levelling up beyond the broad commitment of a transformative agenda of investment in infrastructure, research and development and skills training. Otherwise, we will end up with a scattergun approach with disconnected policies and initiatives that will not collectively result in improved outcomes. It is also only by knowing what you are trying to level up that clear targets can be developed. As we all know, what gets measured gets delivered on in government.

In deciding what it will level up, the Government first needs to be clear on the distinction between levelling up places versus levelling up people. Investing in places does not necessarily improve the outcomes of those living in those areas. By investing in places only, for example through the Freeports initiative announced by the Government last October, there is a risk that jobs created are filled by those commuting in from other areas rather than benefitting local people.

Conversely, a skill development programme may benefit local people but without jobs within the local area, those people are likely to commute to other areas for work, undermining the increased prosperity of the local area. To truly level up, the Government not only needs to be clear on what it is levelling up but also have a dual focus on investing in places and people.

The ambition of the Government to level up is commendable, however, the scale of the challenge is significant. The fact that a baby boy born in Blackpool in 2018 is expected to live 10 years less than if he was born in Westminster (Office of National Statistics) demonstrates how deep rooted and complex the current regional inequalities are.

The prize in addressing these underlying factors of regional inequality that previous governments have failed to reverse is significant. However, sadly the political challenge of tackling these factors is less glamorous and will require more radical thinking than launching “vanity” infrastructure projects which are more likely to be short-term vote winners but which – like all others before it – will likely fail to get to the root of the problem.

With an 80-seat majority, and a divided opposition, you could argue that now more than ever is the Government’s chance to focus on the systemic issues causing these regional inequalities. However, with small majorities in many of the seats they won in 2019 and the Conservatives already have an eye on the ticking clock towards the next election in 2024, the allure of short term wins rather than the Government holding its nerve in addressing the root causes of regional inequalities is understandably strong.

If the Government is going to really level up the country, it will require a focused and targeted approach. Levelling up cannot be all things to all people. An overall level playing field in terms of outcomes would require all places to have the same skill composition and be of a similar size. This is not realistic nor is it economically feasible.

Instead, the levelling-up agenda should be focused on those areas with the strongest potential to have high productivity and economic growth. Analysis from the Centre for Cities found that these are the largest cities. However, many of the “red wall” seats are in those small- and medium-sized towns and cities where closing the output gap is going to be less effective. Therefore, the Government faces a difficult dilemma on where to focus on levelling up and it is yet unclear whether the evidence or political calculation will prevail.

Finally, if the Government is to really level up the country, it needs to level up not only investment but also power. This shift of power out to those areas left behind needs to be more than cosmetic changes of moving the Conservative’s headquarters to Leeds or as announced in the Spending Review, relocating 22,000 civil servants out of London.

Overall, the concept of levelling up is an appealing soundbite to voters. However, achieving it is much more complex and challenging. It remains to be seen if MPs are in it for the long haul and have the country’s best interests at heart or whether they are looking for quick political wins in areas where they need electoral favours in 2024. And thus, leaving the country no further forward than where other governments have got to in addressing regional inequalities.

Kieran Cooke: Yes, schools have been challenged by Covid-19. But they have also shown a tremendous ability to innovate.

12 Aug

Kieran Cooke is a branch officer in Chingford and Woodford Green Conservatives, a former County Councillor candidate and an educational adviser.

The current media and public discourse is filled with concerns and challenges around getting young people back into schools and the lost learning that has occurred due to school closures.

However at the same time, new opportunities have arisen which benefit schools and young people but have received little airtime. These opportunities are due to the quick response and innovative ways that the school system as a whole – from individual teachers in their classrooms to those leading the education system – have reacted over the course of the pandemic to date.

In April 2019, the Government published its strategy to help improve and increase the effective use of technology in education. Little did it know at the time how important this would be in supporting pupils’ learning during the period of school closures.

The rate at which schools, and the education system as a whole, adapted and innovated to provide online learning opportunities for young people was impressive. Covid-19 has accelerated progress in the use of technology in education at a rate that was not imagined prior to the pandemic. This has required educators to improve their digital skills, helping them to future-proof their own skill-set in using technology to improve learning for all.

Of course the missing ingredient here, as highlighted by school closures, is the lack of equity of access to digital technologies for all young people. Prior to the pandemic, there were many ideas around reimagining the future of learning.

But this pandemic has moved that conversation on significantly, by necessity. The Government now has the opportunity to continue this progress in the use of education technology to support improved learning outcomes for all. This will shift learning from something that happens in a physical classroom to a blended model on a more permanent basis, as well as future-proof the education system and prepare young people for the increasingly digital workplace and society.

Another strategy that has benefitted from a ‘turbo-charge’ during the pandemic has been the Government’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy to address the need for more teachers who then remain in the profession.

Applications to the teaching profession have soared in this period, with UCAS’ latest data indicating that between June 15 and July 20, there were 91 per cent more applications to teacher training compared to the same period last year. Encouragingly, this increase includes shortage subjects such as physics and maths, which are going to be crucial for the long-term Covid-19 recovery and our future economy.

While some of this is because of the economic downturn in the private sector, it is also likely to be due to an increase in society’s perception of teachers due to them having excelled in ‘their moral duty’ to keep schools open for key workers’ children and vulnerable children and the sense of fulfilment and increased insights of parents in teaching their own children.

This improved perception of the teaching profession is long overdue and a key characteristic of the highest performing education systems globally. We now need to build upon this opportunity by supporting these teachers throughout their career with high-quality professional development and conducive working cultures, thereby retaining them within the profession.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity to have come out of the situation is how schools and the learning of young people have risen up the political agenda and in the public’s mind. Getting all young people back into school as a non-negotiable priority has reminded everyone of the fundamental importance of schools beyond just learning.

For many young people, school is where they feel safe, feed themselves and develop emotionally and socially. While this has always been recognised, the Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted just how important this is.

For example, there was a 32 per cent increase in contact with the NSPCC during lockdown and an estimated 2.3 million young people have not completed any school work during school closures. This shows how vital it is for decision makers to continue the investment and support for schools and that is why the Prime Minister’s recent announcement on the increase in per pupil funding is welcome.

That way schools can continue to fulfil their key role in contributing to the long term recovery from Covid-19 by upskilling and preparing all young people to contribute to rebuilding the economy and wider society.

So while not underestimating the challenges that schools, the education system and most importantly young people themselves have faced over the last few months, let us not lose sight of the opportunities that have been realised. By building on these, the education system will bounce-back better and give itself a head start in improving outcomes for all young people.