Levelling up: True Blue or just a bit faded?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson attempted to expound on his ‘levelling up’ policies in Coventry yesterday to very mixed reception. It came out as confused and lacking in any clear detailed policy to such an extent that most observers reacted with incredulity. This was mixed with disappointment and some anger. Everyone expected some new policy announcements, not more of the same confused messages. Out of it comes a sense that business investment will dominate, and all other policies will fall in line. This includes education geared to employers demands. The idea of ‘levelling up’ does not mean equality for people as individuals. But without that it will fail in its objectives. If the intention was to be *‘True Blue’ it has somewhat faded.

The speech itself, The Prime Minister’s Levelling Up speech: 15 July 2021, was disjointed and at times laced with incomprehensible mixed metaphors. This passage summed it up well.

 “But now is the time to do even better and then there is one final ingredient, the most important factor in levelling up, the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce – the ketchup of catch-up and that is leadership and this brings me to the crux of the argument- this country is not only one of the most imbalanced in the developed world, it is also one of the most centralised – and those two defects are obviously connected”.

Indeed, the past failings of a conservative administration were put proudly on display. Yet Johnson offered little of substance. To counter his long list of failings by the recent government, it seems he plans to deploy some ill-defined “magic sauce” to level up our nation. On post-16 education there was little new to offer other than the inexorable drift toward technical qualifications designed for the least advantaged. There is a plan to slowly replace BTEC qualifications with T-levels in technical and applied subjects. This promise is backed by the assertion that “we are rolling out T-levels and apprenticeships because we know that higher level apprentices earn more than the average graduate five years after graduation”. But there is a route already. BTECS are an established way into university for many students, however the so called ‘elite’ universities do not accept them. Time will tell if T-levels will fare any better and no one is holding their breath.

Why Coventry?

Johnson chose to make his landmark ‘Levelling Up’ speech in the City of Coventry at the opening of the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (NBIC). It is sited close to the former Coventry Airport in a more affluent part of the City that may soon host a major battery ‘mega’ factory to replace the airfield. The NBIC is there to innovate and bridge the gap between research and the development of advanced manufacturing.  In turning up, Johnson found himself in the centre of the Labour stronghold of Coventry and speaking to a very able and technically savvy audience.  The city is surrounded by Conservative blue on the political map. Yet this did not deter him from sowing the seeds of confusion about what ‘levelling up’ might mean. Apparently, it is about more business investment in less advantaged regions and “Levelling up can only be achieved with a strong and dynamic wealth creating economy”.  In the context of telling everyone that much of the UK was no better than the old East Germany, he noted that the economy there is now advancing faster than much of the North of England. On policy, apparently there will be a white paper later in the year. But it seems the idea is still poorly defined despite his promise that “I want to talk again about that project of levelling up and to define it more closely and in advance of a white paper later this year that will set out our plan to level up”.

Class and geographical divisions.

The proposal for supporting the sport of Association Football with more facilities so that “you are never more than 15 minutes away from a high-quality football pitch” might have gone down well with long suffering Sky Blues supporters, but a Rugby Union supporter across the class divide might take another view. Yes he really proposed this in the speech and apparently without realising the social class implications.

Coventry is seen by some as marking a boundary between the beleaguered industrial North and the affluent South of England. Some would argue that Johnson was standing on the line that divides the two in that part of Coventry. More industry in decline and deprivation to the North and affluent Warwickshire to the South. To placate those in the South, his plan for more investment in the North is not to be achieved by less investment in the South. It is not a “jam-spreading operation, it’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul”. 

The question might be asked in Coventry about where this starts. Despite its size, the city is lumped in with the West Midlands even though many see it as playing a central role in its natural homeland of Warwickshire. Johnson cites support for transport in the designated ‘city regions’ as a key part of current policy. Announcements in June about more support for Birmingham and Leicester seem to confirm some commitment. However, Coventry seems to have been bypassed along with its link to, and position along, the route of HS2 that runs nearby. Many conclude that the strong support for Labour in the City has caused this.

Johnson might have gathered more from the visit if he wished. The opening speech was billed as part of a visit to Coventry UK City of Culture 2021. However, there seems little evidence he went elsewhere in the city. Perhaps a visit to the North East of Coventry would sharpen his mind on ‘levelling up’.

The role of education.

But at least there was something to say on education. This was likely to be on safer ground in a city steeped in technical innovation and with a history of manufacturing and engineering. The idea of much improved technical education and qualifications would have attracted those seeking to invest in manufacturing.  But much of Higher Education, and fair access to all its advantages, still seems a long way off. While he observes that it is in “post 16 education where the differences across our society are the starkest” he offers the comfort that “We love our universities and we believe they are one of the glories of this country but we need to escalate the value of practical and vocational education that can transform people’s lives”.  I can hear ringing in my ears the careers advice I had in 1971, when in a grammar school preparing for A-levels a year early, “of course university is not for the likes of you”. It turned out to be the best advice I was ever given. I simply became determined to prove it wrong.

Are there holes in the Johnson education plan?

On schools there was a sleight of hand deployed. To counter the effects of the pandemic on schools , he noted “£3 billion” is being spent on the “biggest tutoring programme anywhere in the world to help them catch up”. The German Parliament approved a similar sum of €2 billion (£1.73 billion) earlier this month and may deploy more. In contrast, others are spending much more. This is led by The Netherlands with a hefty   €8.5 billion (£7.3 billion) to help school and college pupils to catch up on lost learning.(TES 2nd June 2021 ‘Covid catch-up: How does England’s funding compare with other countries?’ ).

The fact that the UK National Tutoring Programme (NTP) effort will be delivered by the Dutch multinational  outsourcing company, Randstad, from September, with support from Teach First (TES 2nd June 2021 ‘Catch-up tutoring to be led by private outsourcing firm’) was not explained. But this reinforces the idea of privatisation and business investment as the priority. The simple fact that the NTP is reported by them as a “£1 billion coronavirus catch-up package, with £350 million allocated to support tutoring” from June 2020 is also missed. There seems little evidence of more funding on the DfE site.  Indeed, the government’s own Education Recovery Commissioner for England, Kevan Collin, resigned recently over a lack of “credible” Covid catch-up funding.

There is more even to report that counters the Johnson view of ‘levelling up’. The National Audit Office (NAO) reported in March with ‘Support for children’s education during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic’ and observed that much of the funding was not reaching the miost disadvantaged, despite clear evidence they were “most risk of falling behind”. Instead, the “Demand for the academic mentors scheme for disadvantaged schools has outstripped supply”.

The idea of levelling up also took another major blow from the NAO earlier this month in a review of ‘School funding in England’ (pdf in full). This looked closely at funding arrangements from 2017-18 that appear to have radically diluted the ‘Opportunity Areas’ initiative of former Education Secretary, Justine Greening back in 2016. The report concludes “There has been a shift in the balance of funding from more deprived to less deprived local areas”.  The report goes on to observe “since 2017-18, average per-pupil funding for the most deprived fifth of schools has fallen in real terms by 1.2 per cent to £5,177, while for the least deprived fifth it has risen by 2.9 per cent to £4,4712”. 

This is shocking since it amounts to a ‘levelling down’ for those most in need. Could this be the agenda the government is really pursuing that it hopes will remain hidden from view?  Johnson has serious questions to answer.

The same day the Coventry Telegraph reported the speech as ‘Boris Johnson speaks in Coventry of his ‘outrage’ at imbalances across UK’. This is correct but he leads the government that has brought much of this about. The reporter noted that in concluding his speech, Mr Johnson said: “No one believes – I don’t believe, you don’t believe – there is a basic difference in the potential of babies born across this country.”

In Coventry some might say the promises in the speech were “thrown in from Broadgate”. Here in Edinburgh, I could hear a faint sigh of “Aye right”.

*True-Blue

This describes people who are loyal and unwavering. The idea comes from the famous blue cloth produced in Coventry in the late Middle Ages. The dye did not fade, no matter how many times it was washed, which led to the use of ‘true-blue’ meaning something steadfast and trustworthy.

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