Political slogans define leaders. Tony Blair famously coined the phrase “education, education, education”. And of course “levelling up” has been talk of the town at the Conservative party conference in Manchester. The definition of levelling up is still rather fuzzy. It can be all things to all people. A commentator told me it was a “state of mind”. An optimistic junior minister declared “you’ll know it’s happening when you feel it” which made it all sound rather exciting in a tingly kind of way. But whatever your definition, education must be at the heart of levelling up.
I chaired a fascinating event in Manchester organised by the National Education Union on what levelling up means for disadvantaged children. It’s not that common to see trade unions at Tory party conference but this was a constructive, good-humoured discussion and there was lots of common ground between MPs, councillors, teachers and other education experts. It’s clear that children, particularly those from disadvantaged families, have paid a heavy price during lockdown. The intersection between poverty and learning became crystal clear as teachers got a window through computer screens into homes where families were on top of each other existing in one room and many didn’t have access to technology or broadband to even have classes.
Now that things are easing, and there is a new Education Secretary in Nadhim Zahawi, everyone is keen to learn the lessons. There was agreement that children are best off in schools and need to be with their friends in the classroom and in the playground.
But the role that technology in education plays is not going away and bridging the digital divide is essential. Schools could play a bigger role in helping to bulk-buy kit for poorer families. The other huge issue on the horizon is mental health, special educational needs and children who are vulnerable or in care. Some experts told stories of how some children fared better at home because the provisions at school were so patchy and teachers don’t have the right resources or tools to adequately deal with different needs, and it was less stressful for all involved.
A serious amount of attention has to be given to these issues so schools can be genuinely inclusive and support all children, parents and teachers. More than 135,000 children have not returned to school since lockdown was lifted. We must find out why they are missing. It was also felt the schools inspectorate Ofsted should do more to recognise, incentivise and reward all the work that needs to go into making education inclusive. But a big part of levelling up is also tackling poverty.
It’s hard to learn or behave if you’re hungry or things at home are hard, and today’s cut to Universal Credit is going is going to make that worse. More than one million Londoners are on Universal Credit — many of whom work — and 130,000 will be plunged into poverty. With rising food and fuel bills plus tax increases, all this will affect many children across the capital and how they get on at school. In the absence of reversing the cut, the Government may increase the living wage. Another idea Zahawi could press for would be giving free school meals to children affected by UC cuts and also offer more wraparound care in the form of breakfast and afterschool clubs and summer schools. Levelling up means nothing if it doesn’t help our poorest kids post-pandemic. This isn’t just the right thing to do. This country needs to nurture and harness every scrap of talent going.
What do you think of the government’s levelling up agenda? Let us know in the comments below.