Levelling up must mean equality for all; now get on with it – Jayne Dowle

WHAT is ‘levelling up’? It’s not even a clever slogan, but two words thrown about by Ministers and MPs, those in charge of regeneration projects and anyone who wants to sound important.

Education should be integral to Boris Johnson's levelling up strategy - but where's the evidence? Columnist Jayne Dowle poses the question.
Education should be integral to Boris Johnson's levelling up strategy - but where's the evidence? Columnist Jayne Dowle poses the question.

Yet clearly it does not bear close scrutiny. Never mind that female voter in Chesham and Amersham complaining that “the North” gets all the money. John Healey, Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne, is pointing out that, even within Yorkshire itself, levelling up is inequitable.

More affluent towns such as Whitby, for instance, are receiving investment from the Government’s Towns Fund, whilst beleaguered areas in his own South Yorkshire constituency are not.

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In Barnsley town centre the other day, I noted the boarded-up shops in the Victorian arcade and witnessed the dispossessed souls hanging about near what used to be called the Job Centre.

Boris Johnson is under growing pressure to define his levelling up strategy.

It would be the same weekday scenario, I know, in less-favoured towns in Kent, for example, Essex or even Cornwall, where G7 leaders only saw the good bits. It doesn’t matter about the map. This point is missed over and over again.

I thought about the students walking to the bus station, and wondered how their experience growing up here is shaping their hopes and aspirations.

It’s fair to say that a large proportion would recognise themselves in the new report The Forgotten: How White Working Class Pupils Have Been Let Down, And How To Change It, published by the Conservative-led Commons Education Committee.

And they would agree that they feel shut out of the opportunities others take for granted or are pushed towards by ambitious parents and bias-conscious teachers.

Education should be integral to Boris Johnson's levelling up strategy - but where's the evidence? Columnist Jayne Dowle poses the question.

The report found that 18 per cent of white British pupils on free meals achieved Grade 5 in GCSE English and maths in 2019 whereas the average for pupils on free meals overall was 23 per cent.

For university entry, 16 per cent of white British pupils on free meals get places, compared with 59 per cent of black African pupils on free meals, 59 per cent of Bangladeshi pupils on free meals and 32 per cent of black Caribbean pupils on free meals.

We could argue all day about white privilege, just as we could play postcode politics. The point that the Government cannot ignore is that there is an obvious demographic here being shut out of opportunities for a myriad of reasons – lack of confidence, poor support at home, the wrong kind of role models and fear of losing touch with their ‘community’.

And these are just the minor chords, with child poverty, under-resourced schools, underfunded health services and inadequate public transport all common background factors.

Does the Prime Minister consider any of this when those promises come tumbling out of his mouth? He first used the ‘levelling up’ phrase – I think – in his 2019 Tory leadership campaign.

Now, as we survey a national landscape riven by the coronavirus pandemic, reeling from the aftermath of Brexit and with governmental duplicity laid bare, it’s time to either drop it or define it properly.

I’m told that ‘levelling up’ gained traction in Mr Johnson’s manifesto because it was thought to appeal to younger voters, ‘levelling up’ being a term familiar to those who enjoy video games.

It should be far simpler than that. ‘Levelling up’ should really mean equality of opportunity for all. At the heart of this is education. Not just in the number of GCSE passes, but the doors it opens and the aspirations it raises.

Too many of these doors open for a crack – a bright child’s potential is spotted at school, teachers throw everything at them – only to be slammed shut.

Now, even middle-class friends and relations, with decent jobs and pensions, are telling their kids that university is ‘not for the likes of us’, warning of colossal debts and no guaranteed job.

I can see this parental point, but what is filling the vacuum? Alternatives, such as apprenticeships, are not properly organised or funded, with some rare exceptions.

On darker days I see us shrinking as a society into ourselves, avoiding risk or reaching out, with no forward momentum. So much for that combustion engine metaphor.

If ‘equality for all’ sounds dangerously like old-fashioned Labour, well there you have yet another conundrum of our messed-up political spectrum. A Conservative Prime Minister, born and educated in privilege, is pushing an agenda which, ideologically, he doesn’t believe in. No wonder it is meaningless.

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