By Stephen Evans
The Levelling Up White Paper was both long awaited and long, clocking in at 332 pages. It includes a list of the largest cities in the world since 7000BC, the sort of essay padding any student would be proud of.
On the other hand, the White Paper is a statement of intent and puts some flesh on the bones of what levelling up means, defining it as local pride, local control and greater equality of opportunity. In the words of Secretary of State Michael Gove, you should be able to stay local and go far.
Why does lifelong learning matter in this? There’s a direct link. Greater access to learning and skills helps people access more and better jobs and employers to be more productive.
Learning should also be a golden thread running through lots of other policy areas. Research by Learning and Work Institute (L&W) has shown how learning can support health and well-being as well as civic engagement, and therefore the white paper’s aims to narrow gaps in life expectancy and to increase local pride and control. Put simply, if you want to ‘level up’ you need lifelong learning.
Levelling up might be a new(ish) phrase, but it’s not a new challenge. The 1934 Special Areas Act directed extra investment at high unemployment areas. L&W research shows that many of the same areas still need ‘levelling up’ now.
And this mustn’t just be about geographic areas. What about different groups of people, such as disabled people and lone parents? We need to make sure that who you are and where you’re from doesn’t limit what you can achieve.
L&W is pleased that increasing adult learning is one of the targets – missions – in the paper. The Government wants 200,000 more adults to improve their skills each year in England by 2030, of whom 80,000 should be in the bottom third of local authorities for Level 3 attainment. But this is a pretty unambitious goal: Learning and Work Institute research shows it would reverse just one quarter of the falls in adult attainment seen since 2010.
This is linked to the lack of new investment in the White Paper. That shouldn’t surprise anyone since it’s only a few months since the spending Review. It’s welcome that adult skills budgets are increasing after a decade of cuts. But it is impossible to level up on the cheap and we will still be spending £750 million less in real terms on adult skills in 2025 compared with 2010. We need a higher ambition for public investment in lifelong learning.
The fact we’re just after a Spending Review and a Skills White Paper also explains why there’s little in the way of new lifelong learning policy in the White Paper. This means we have the same positives and flaws as we did before. The positives include the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (Level 4-6) and the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, which includes free training for a first full Level 3 for certain qualifications, and from April 2022 free training for unemployed and low paid adults seeking retraining at Level 3. The challenge is to promote these in areas where qualifications are currently lowest. But there’s not enough focus on improving access to essential skills – where take-up has fallen 63% in a decade – or how lifelong learning and other public services can better join up. Both of these are essential to make levelling up a reality and we need greater support for people’s living costs while learning too.
One of the most potentially positive aspects of the White Paper is the framework it provides for devolution, setting out the policy areas different geographies could pitch for. That includes the prospect of the Adult Education Budget being devolved in more areas, and various metro mayors pitching for greater devolution too, such as of 16-18 funding. L&W hopes this is a step away from the piecemeal approach we’ve often had to date, with local areas having to bid for multiple, short-term, small pots of money. It offers the opportunity for places to demonstrate how they’d do things differently. However, the Government should go further toward the Canadian model where funds are devolved to local government in a single budget tied to outcome agreements that show what will be achieved and how, with robust evaluation plans. You shouldn’t have to go far to get on. Delivering that will be a long haul so the White Paper must just be the start.
We should aim for more ambitious devolution of employment and skills programmes underpinned by an evidence-based approach and commitment to improved outcomes for people, building on the Canadian model of Local Labour Market Agreements.
We need to build a pathway of skills progression that includes greater opportunities to improve essential skills and target efforts to increase take-up among groups and areas with the lowest engagement today.
We should make lifelong learning the golden thread running through efforts to level up, including strategies for local economic growth and to tackle health inequalities.