Levelling Up: Now we know what it means - lots of stuff but little substance

by Geoff Barton, ASCL General Secretary

Well, apparently we all now know what ‘levelling up’ is all about. That at least is the government’s hope. But I suspect the houses down your street aren’t festooned in celebratory bunting that this tiresome phrase has needed a 322-page document to explain it.

There’s lots of stuff in there about lots of stuff, but let’s focus on what levelling up means for education. And, before we look at its proposals, it might be worth asking yourself what you would do if you were in government? If you were Secretary of State for Education, what would your priorities be?

Because the truth is that, in England, we have a good education system, but frankly it isn’t yet good enough for every child from every background. It’s still too much of a postcode lottery.

And if you compare education in England with those international big boys we’re supposed to measure ourselves against – such as Finland and Shanghai – then education in our country is bedevilled by one particular problem. It’s the gap in achievement between young people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Here’s how the renowned think tank the Education Policy Institute described the problem in its 2019 annual report. It said:

Over recent years, there has been a dramatic slowing down in the closure of the disadvantage gap, to the extent that the five-year rolling average now suggests that it would take 560 years to close the gap.”

Take a look at that again. Even in normal pre-Covid times, at the current rate of progress it was going to take more than 500 years to narrow the gap between young people’s performance in our most advantaged and disadvantaged communities. The level of challenge is simply eye-watering.

All of which suggests that our education system needs a serious overhaul if it’s to be something that serves young people from every background.

My organisation, the Association of School and College Leaders, represents senior leaders – heads, deputies, chief executives and business leaders – across all types of schools and colleges and from all parts of the UK.

Our recent Blueprint for a Fairer Education System makes a series of proposals for how we could take our currently good education system and make it world class. We suggest changes to the curriculum so that skills and technical education are given higher priority. We think our over-heavy qualifications system could be simplified, especially at GCSE. We think that the way that schools and colleges are measured – through performance tables and Ofsted inspections – could be made more humane, in order that we can recruit and retain the best teachers and leaders at the schools and colleges in the communities that need them the most.

So, what would you do if you were at the educational helm in Whitehall?

Surely, if levelling up is to be anything other than a bit of government rhetoric, this white paper is the moment to shape how education will be improved across the country?

But what we get is largely disappointing. There’s talk of a national mission to eradicate ‘illiteracy’ and ‘nnumeracy’ by 2030. That date hardly suggests the degree of urgency that’s needed. And simply plucking a target for primary texts out of thin air is hardly telling us how we will raise standards. There’s nothing about how we recruit more teachers. what they’ll do differently, or what extra resources there might be to help children to learn.

And aren’t those words ‘illiteracy’ and ‘innumeracy’ pretty problematic? They refer to children in Year 6 – the final year of primary school – who haven’t met national standards. That’s very different to being either illiterate or innumerate, or both. 

There’s also a surprising amount about food. Schools will be required to publish mandatory food ‘statements’. They’ll be expected to make more space in the curriculum for children to learn to cook. There will be new inspections of food standards across schools.

All of which may well be a good idea. After all, we need our future citizens to better look after their mind, body and soul. But is this really the kind of ambition that will level up educational standards?

There’s an announcement of 55 new ‘education investment areas’. That sounds like a rehash of existing ideas, creating education action zones in areas deemed as ‘cold spots’. Within them, it seems, will be new sixth forms which the government’s press office describes as ‘elite’.

Whilst there will be some parents who will welcome super selective sixth forms, it seems a bit of a distraction from what the country needs. Many of us aren’t convinced that we need more young people competing to get top grades to get to universities. We think we need to break free from years of educational snobbery and celebrate a range of other routes – such as apprenticeships and vocational and technical qualifications.

There’s other stuff too – a suggestion that schools rated as ‘requiring improvement’ might be forced to join multi-academy trusts. And there are some ideas for better careers education. 

But, all in all, I think all the hype of levelling up will leave lots of us feeling disappointed. Here was a chance to make teaching a high status, 21st century profession. Here was a chance to develop and celebrate the potential of all our young people. Here was a chance to show how technology could be part of the transformation of education as it has been in health.

Instead, there’s a long document, some of it apparently cut and pasted from previously abandoned government policies and papers. The words ‘missed opportunity’ instantly spring to mind.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 
Posted: 04/02/2022 12:59:51