Levelling up requires pathways through education and work throughout life, not separate routes

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By Chris Millward, Professor of Practice in Education Policy, School of Education

This week’s levelling up White Paper is reported to be inspired by the Medici rulers of renaissance Italy.  One issue not mentioned, though, is their handling of the local university in Florence, the Studium Generale, which they exiled to Pisa. 

The government’s plan demonstrates a greater appreciation of the importance of universities to prosperity in their local areas.  The commitment to increase research and development spending outside the Greater South East is particularly noteworthy, as is the involvement of universities in place-making to improve civic engagement and local pride.

The education mission within the White Paper, however, appears to promote separation of learners in local areas, rather than coherent routes enabling development and progression throughout life.  This is a curious approach to securing opportunity and prosperity for all.   

The case for both academic and technical education

By the second half of the 19th century, the Studium Generale had long returned to Florence and, in common with the civic institutions founded in England soon after, its commitment to advanced learning and practice became more explicit.  The Istituto Superiore di Studi Practici e di Perfezionamento might not fit easily on a logo, but its meaning in English – the Higher Institute of Vocational and Advanced Studies – reflects the scope and mission of universities today. 

The words higher and university indicate a level of proficiency underpinned by advanced conceptual understanding, so that it can be replicated and adapted in the future and in other contexts.  It does not, though, exclude technical, creative and professional practice, indeed increasing experience and responsibilities in the workplace often motivate workers and their employers to seek out higher learning.  This means that a high proportion of university activity is rooted in practice and integrated with work.  Even the vaunted German technical education system is now enabling blended pathways through academic and technical education.

Inclusive growth – the goal to improve both equity and prosperity that must be central to levelling up – requires bridges to be built between knowledge and skills, academic and technical education, and universities and further education colleges.  But the focus on selective 6th forms and skills training, heralded in the pre-announcement of levelling up education policies, suggests separation of learners at the age of 16. 

Given the attainment gaps emerging from early years, greater separation of learners between a schools route towards university and a skills route towards employment can be expected to mirror social background.  It will also run counter to demand from learners and employers, who want broad and adaptable cognitive abilities to be aligned with specific technical and professional skills.    

The education mission for levelling up

The headline levelling up policy announced by the Department for Education is the identification of 55 ‘education investment areas’ for ‘targeted investment, support and action’.  This builds on the approach to opportunity areas established under the previous government, which was well crafted and received.  Educational inequalities are, though, influenced by factors beyond the education system, such as housing, health, jobs and wealth, so the levelling up strategy needs to support coherent pathways through both education and work that address this. 

Within the 55 areas, there will be new specialist 6th form free schools ‘to ensure talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to the highest standard of education this country can offer’.  It is not yet clear how these schools will identify the deserving poor who will benefit from them, but they appear intended to promote a discrete academic route through to university. 

Learners who do not fall within the definition of ‘talented children’ appear likely to be routed towards skills training, boosted by a new mission to help 200,000 more people complete high quality courses each year, including 80,000 in areas with the lowest skill levels.  Whilst this commitment is welcome, its alignment with the 6th form free schools announcement serves to increase the fragmentation of pathways and separation of learners.     

Institutes of Technology might counter this by bringing universities and further education colleges together with employers to create routes through higher technical education, with specialisms reflecting local priorities and strengths.  The announcement of Royal Charters for the Institutes will no doubt enhance their standing and attractiveness, but it does not yet provide the scale and roots necessary for them to become embedded and recognised across our education system.  That will require much greater and more sustained investment than the current commitment to the 21 Institutes established to date, which involve around a quarter of the nation’s universities and further colleges but receive less than 0.03% of government investment across the two sectors. 

It will also require Institutes to have a clearer position within the educational landscape, given they have no status with the universities regulator and do not extend through to postgraduate education and research.  Addressing this could link together the skills and research missions within the levelling up White Paper, enabling local people to compete for the jobs that are intended to flow from increasing research investment.         

Learning for future prosperity 

The education mission within the levelling up strategy will be underpinned by a new Future Skills Unit, which will ‘look at the data and evidence on where skills gaps exist and in what industries’.  This framing, perhaps inadvertently, suggests a static position within which education and skills training can be adjusted to meet the needs of employers, with government focusing on the supply side to create opportunities and meet demand.  People in the areas that have been identified for educational investment are, however, experiencing a scarcity of good jobs, which calls for a more dynamic approach. 

This would recognise that learning needs to equip people for uncertainty and changing opportunities, which requires inquisitive as well as acquisitive development.  It would cut through the assumed boundaries between academic and technical learning, and how they relate to fixed job classifications, creating pathways for learning throughout life.  That should be the education mission for levelling up.       

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