The Government has released its Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper, setting out a series of policy aims to empower and regenerate the ‘left behind’ areas of the UK. The proposed introduction of Education Investment Areas, the UK National Academy, new Institutes of Technology, and the Unit for Future Skills, among other provisions, are a signal that the Government has placed new directions in skills and education policy at the centre of its levelling up plans. But it could go still further in pursuing radical innovation in place-based, lifelong academic and vocational learning provision that makes retraining and upskilling accessible to the worst-off people and areas across the UK.
Skill levels across the UK, as measured by qualification attainment levels, have improved considerably over the past twenty years, with the proportion of adults qualified to Level 4 and above nearly doubling. However, while the UK’s position is relatively strong at the higher level (Levels 6–8), it is relatively weak at both intermediate (Levels 4–5) and low levels (Levels 1–3) compared to international standards. For example, there are still nearly 6.5 million adults (or 15.4 percent of the adult population) who are not qualified above Level 2.
At the same time, there is a stark disparity in skills and qualification levels between different parts of the UK. In some parts of England, especially in the more prosperous South, the proportion of people without any formal qualifications is less than 1 percent (Richmond Park). In others, particularly in the more deprived areas of the Midlands and the North, it lies at more than 20 percent (Dudley North). The problem is endemic and has persisted for many generations.
But the story of this disparity is not just as simple as a large-scale geographic divergence in skill levels between London and the Greater Southeast and the rest of the UK. It exists cheek by jowl across the country, especially in the UK’s major urban areas. For instance, in Sheffield Hallam, one of the most affluent constituencies in the country, 72 percent of the adult population are educated to Level 4 and above, compared to 43 percent nationally. In neighbouring Brightside and Hillsborough, the 12th most deprived constituency in England, only 33 percent are qualified at this level.
Skills and education are drivers of economic prosperity as well as good physical and mental health. It is thus no surprise that those parts of the country with the lowest skill levels are also the least economically productive, with lower wage growth, higher unemployment, and poorer health outcomes. As employers continue to report skill gaps and shortages, we know that future changes to the structure and composition of jobs will accelerate. This will potentially exacerbate the current mismatch between the supply and demand for the higher and technical skills needed to support the growth industries of the 21st century.
The disparity in skills and education, with low academic and vocational qualification levels concentrated in the most deprived places, comes at the cost of economic growth and life chances. These hold back the ‘left behind’ regions of the UK, and by doing so stymie its ability to seize on national opportunities for industrial innovation and knowledge development. If we want to level up, then we must address these challenges and invest in human capital in the places where we find it.
This manifesto outlines ten key policies that would enable local areas to take significant forward strides in crafting skills and education policies that can meet their current and future needs. Six of these policies are powers that should be devolved to mayoral combined authorities and counties with ‘county deals’ as part of all future devolution arrangements. These should be set out within the framework of five-year funding settlements between Government and the competent local authorities that specifically cover the funds dedicated to skills and education. The remaining four policies are simple but meaningful policy changes at the national level that would go furthest in helping make these devolved powers as effective as possible.
At their heart is the principle that local authorities need the flexibility to set, pool, and ringfence budgets for local learning development projects, as well as the discretion to direct local knowledge and skills innovation. They should have oversight of the Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) introduced by the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, with powers to direct and commission skills training, and provide bespoke in-work training for growth sectors in collaboration with colleges, universities, and employers.
These ten policies can help the Government achieve a regional revolution in skills and education. With them, the UK is best positioned to make a real difference to knowledge and productivity in every corner of the country. To level up, we have to devolve down.