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Levelling Up and the need for real social justice
Fleur Sexton, Deputy Lieutenant West Midlands and Managing Director of PET-Xi – one of the most hard-hitting and dynamic training providers in the UK with a reputation for success with the hardest to reach – shares her thoughts on the Levelling Up White Paper and the need for real social justice
The Government’s Levelling Up White Paper is very welcome and comes at a crucial time as we begin to tackle the post COVID rebuild. Above all, the White Paper highlights the social inequity in the country and the need to remove these social injustices that lock people into a cycle of poverty.
If levelling up truly means ‘giving everyone the opportunity to flourish’, there must be sustained change at community level with realistic aims and vision from local government under the new plans for devolution.
We must be sure the data used by the Government to identify the ‘cold spots’ is up-to-date in order to fully address the current postcode lottery of life chances. Without up to date, consistent data, we could see more cold spots emerge as plans progress.
Giving the power and handing the purse strings back to local government will allow local leaders to target funds to help those most in need. We should embrace devolution because local leadership works – local leaders can identify priorities in their areas – they know the issues and challenges facing communities because they are there – a grassroots understanding that is impossible to achieve working remotely from an office in Whitehall.
At a time when 4 in 10 Britons expect their finances to worsen over the next year, the White Paper provides local leaders with the tools and offers communities the practical solutions that they need right now. For those of us working on the ground with the communities, all twelve missions are very necessary and very challenging, but we need to ensure they happen.
Local partnerships are crucial to rebuilding communities and creating chances for those most affected by the pandemic: the vulnerable and the marginalised, those in the lowest paid jobs without formal qualifications, those whose previous criminal records mean little to no chance of employment, refugees and migrants and those living in temporary accommodation.
The focus on education is also extremely welcome, with the forecast that 90% of children will achieve expected standards by 2030. For children in the most deprived areas, with the lowest current performance, this equates to an overall improvement of one third – an enormous challenge. I do think however that the current pay freeze, a continuing exodus from the teaching profession and the falling number of graduates taking up teaching, all seem at odds with these hypothetical projections for increased attainment.
Furthermore, education cannot be removed from its social equation – the plethora of issues contributing to the under-performance of young people: poverty and social instability, parents struggling with mental health, violence, temporary housing and criminality. If we take Maslow’s (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs 1943) approach, there are many needs that must be met along the way before we can expect children to be able to sit and concentrate on their lessons.
Increased investment in education and skills is a very positive step. As an ex-Apprenticeship Minister it is no surprise to see Nadim Zahawi using apprenticeships as a core part of the Levelling Up Plan. The main concern here is the country-wide drop in apprenticeship ‘starts’ at intermediate level (Level 2) where most young people enter.
Over the past two years we have seen an increase in the number of ‘inactive unknowns’ – people who are no longer actively seeking work or education. The proposed shift towards more advanced level qualifications, could leave these young people who are furthest away from engagement in education, even more isolated.
The opportunities offered at T Level, initially introduced to meet the needs of students and employers in business and industry alike, are still relatively unknown to many disengaged young people. We need to introduce pre-apprenticeship programmes to provide them with the chance to level up before they move to apprenticeship selection.
Let’s catch up – right now, there is a lot to do in order for any of the above actions to happen. Raising engagement and ultimately attainment will be a major driver over the next two years and beyond. So before looking at new future skills, we must address the simplest of things – good levels of maths and English for all – we eagerly await further information about Multiply, the Department for Education’s (DfE) £559m adult numeracy programme.
However, the latest announcements by the DfE on raising GCSE maths and English requirements for university entrants seems another education back step. In the past 9 years the number of 18 year-olds applying to university from disadvantaged areas has risen from 18% to 28% and university is still the quickest route to social mobility.
Coupled with a lower earning threshold for repayments, increases in yearly repayments and the extension of loan balances to 40 years before being written off, university may cease to be a viable aspiration to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, one less available option for young people to escape poverty.
The UK Shared Prosperity Fund sets out bold new approaches to improving livelihoods and opportunity across the UK. This will involve firm moral leadership and commitment to push money into the priority wards to help those most in need, and the Government must ensure that any other further measures and policies do not detract from the 12 missions.
We need to remain focused on removing the injustices which lock people into a cycle of debt, temporary accommodation and poverty. We need to continue to work hard to address the real issues – the post-COVID and the race and gender-based disparities which are becoming ever more hard wired and challenging. Our first priority must be building social justice frameworks to provide stability and support for our poorest communities.
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