Levelling Up for All Students, Schools and Colleges

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In terms of education, are the government’s plans to ‘level up’ achievable?

There is an assumption, popular with policymakers, that education, and investment in it, correlates directly with growing economic prosperity (Policy Exchange, 2020).

‘Levelling up’ was a phrase first coined by former MP and Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening. It’s a buzzword that the Conservative government and Boris Johnson particularly like, and have continued to use throughout the pandemic.

Keeping one eye on education politics, Policy Exchange, an opaque right-leaning and influential think tank, often at the grassroots of upcoming policy changes across (education) England. Greening is now working to ensure organisations make a pledge to ‘level up’ so that anyone, regardless of where you live, is not left behind.

In late 2020, Policy Exchange published ‘Rethinking social mobility for the levelling up era‘. I’ve finally got around to reading it and assessing if teachers should be hopeful. Of interest, this publication was published by Alun Francis, the principal of Oldham College and the new deputy chair of the social mobility commission.

What does the report say?

Levelling UpI think we need a couple of definitions before we begin.

According to The Social Mobility Commission, it “exists to create a United Kingdom where the circumstances of birth do not determine outcomes in life.”

According to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the website states this department is there to “support communities across the UK to thrive, making them great places to live and work.”

The 33-page paper starts with an introduction from Francis, offering a compelling example of ‘social mobility’ at the college he currently leads. There’s also a little bit about the logistical set-up of the Commission, moving away from education to another part of government so that there is a renewed ‘focus on everyone’.

In the first part of the paper, there is an overview of factors and problems discussed. In summary, how the term ‘social mobility’ has become promiscuous and is in danger of losing any meaning. Pessimism is tackled head-on! That the ‘decline narrative’ from academics is misleading and that mobility is “staggeringly high” (Gorard, 2008) – although this is an outdated source!

Measures of success are also identified, considering OECD, proxy indicators as well as how we evaluate evidence. Aspirations and ambitions are considered – distanced travelled by children – extremities, defined as bottom and top or disadvantaged and advantaged, highlighted as unhelpful definitions. “Those who buck trends should surely occupy a much greater part in the social mobility story.”

Finally, demand – competition between people for a fixed sum of opportunities – and merit and equality are identified as current problems.

So, what for teachers, pupils and parents?

The word ‘education’ is used 90 times in some shape or form throughout the report. On page 19, there is a dedicated section to the field of education, with opportunities discussed, as well as ‘the problem of knowledge’ which is an interesting section. There are supporters of a ‘content less’ approach, not to produce particular knowledge or specific abilities, but generic skills.

“There are obvious flaws in this notion. Such generic skills may be important, but they do not exist in isolation from real knowledge acquisition. Thinking, creativity, and problem-solving are all aspects of applying knowledge to real-world applications.”

Being a design and technology teacher, I’m a big fan of creative endeavour, but having spent a lifetime in the classroom and recently, looking much more closely at knowledge acquisition, memory and schema, it’s hard to disagree with the above quote. Generic skills, yes, but explicitly linked to concepts, rules and facts…

I was reassured to read on page 21, that critics who have argued for a contentless approach, are often labelled as ‘progressive’. I was pleased to read that this term “has had a disastrous impact on learning and is especially damaging for the most disadvantaged.”

Once recent source makes reference to the British public: “According to one recent report 16 million British people struggle with basic numeracy.” Worth also noting that the research referenced cites OECD data from 2011. National Numeracy say this figure is 18 million (2017) – it must be higher now!

Beyond ‘general education’ is discussed, degrees and apprenticeships, which is required (or not) to achieve certain employment, including “the good job of developing the knowledge required to practice takes place within the workplace.” For example, teaching.


One alarm bell worth noting before it becomes something which is commonplace, is that these well-established “signature pedagogies, through which knowledge, applied skills and behaviours required to practice are cultivated, are often tied up with the regulations and licenses to practice which, along with degrees, creates barriers to entry which control the numbers of new entrance and confer significant advance in the market.”

Here is an indication to all, that some policymakers want it to become easier to qualify as a teacher in the future.

For teachers interested in education policy, it is probably worth reading pages 19 to 25 to get a sense of where the current government is moving the social mobility agenda, particularly within schools and colleges.

If education with a strong commitment to knowledge is the key to extending opportunity, then [people must] have a choice in terms of the ongoing development of their talents in ways that are relevant to the labour market and the world of work (Policy Exchange, 2020)

Download the paper.

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