Why education policy must be more ambitious if levelling up to work – Justine Greening

LEVELLING up is a national effort and there are many who will play a role in delivering a Britain of fairer opportunity.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson interacts with school children during a visit to Westbury-On-Trym Church of England Academy in Bristol, prior to a regional cabinet meeting in the city yesterday.

That includes businesses extending new opportunities to new communities and developing skills in the workplace.

It includes Mayors and local government, delivering locally 
devolved public services we rely on day to day, who can convene and shape efforts at a grassroots level, alongside civil society.

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Boris Johnson during a school visit - but is he doing enough to prioritise schools and skills? Former Education Secretary Justine Greening thinks so.

But the core part of the strategy for a levelled up Britain lies squarely with the Government, that only it can truly take a lead on it. Education policy.

And the Government now needs to deliver.

Nowhere is Boris Johnson’s trademark ‘boosterism’ more important than in education.

At the Conservative Party Conference last week it was welcome to see that the new Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, recognised that proficiency in English and maths remains a key plank of the Whitehall education agenda.

Boris Johnson during a visit to Kirklees College - but is he doing enough to prioritise schools and skills? Former Education Secretary Justine Greening thinks so.

However, that is the least parents should expect from their children’s education system.

In reality we all have much higher hopes for their learning than simply the basics.

For children’s sake, and the wider country’s, we need much more than a bare minimum strategy on education.

Fundamentally, the Government’s ambition must be to put in place a comprehensive education strategy that eradicates the gaps that open up in educational outcomes between those from the most advantaged backgrounds and their peers who are least advantaged.

Justine Greening is a former Education Secretary.

It’s not about halving or narrowing gaps, it’s about closing them 
entirely. That’s what equality of opportunity means – a level playing field for all.

It involves closing the so-called early years ‘word gap’ many children have arriving at primary school for the first time.

At this crucial age, poorer vocabulary and communication hinders long term learning and social development as it means some of our youngest children can’t benefit from school as much as their peers.

When it comes to closing the education attainment gap during school years, Opportunity Areas (OAs) are a way we can turbocharge education progress at a local level.

Nadhim Zahawi is the new Education Secretary.

The Bradford, Doncaster and North Yorkshire Coast OAs have had a real impact on educational outcomes. It’s now time for Ministers to act on the voices of campaigners alongside my own, including The Yorkshire Post and former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, who have consistently pressed for more Opportunity Areas to benefit children and young people across the region and more widely.

Let’s see some real ambition, with a fresh wave of Opportunity Areas finally announced this month in the PM’s Levelling Up White Paper.

A comprehensive education plan 
for levelling up would go far beyond 
the narrower lens of academic attainment.

For young people to get the life skills they need to succeed, there must be not only an assessment of what’s required, but also a plan for opportunities in formal education that ensures these skills, for example, problem solving, teamwork, creativity and networking get consistently developed.

On careers advice, progress is now being made. It’s important because it’s virtually impossible to aim for opportunities you know nothing 

Yet companies I work with through the Social Mobility Pledge regularly still say how difficult it can be to get engagement from under-pressure schools and headteachers to allow them to be in schools talking about career opportunities.

Boris Johnson during a visit to Kirklees College - but is he doing enough to prioritise schools and skills? Former Education Secretary Justine Greening thinks so.

It’s often the schools with young people needing that advice the most. The school year has no statutory time built in by Ministers to allow the crucial work experience that expands horizons and helps young people grow up. That needs addressing.

Finally, change takes time. A comprehensive levelling up education plan must also set out how we can make sure talent isn’t held back in the meantime.

Proposals to withdraw vocational BTEC qualifications, and muted plans to introduce minimum-grade entry requirements for accessing higher education, risk removing valuable choices from talented young people when, instead, it is the existing education system that hasn’t done well enough for them.

And, as my own direct experience shows, academic attainment gaps can continue to close post-18 as well as pre. I left college with by no means top A-Level grades across the board, yet I continued to work hard and ultimately graduated from Southampton University with a first class honours degree in Economics.

If Ministers truly believe that ‘talent is spread evenly’, their decisions must reflect that and not kick the ladder of opportunity away.

If education is to level up Britain, we need an education system set up for success.

We have the right collective mission – equality of opportunity – we now need the right plan from Ministers and the right investment from the Chancellor to deliver it.

There are tough choices ahead for Mr Johnson and his government.

But Britain is in the midst of a long-term skills crisis, not just a short term one.

Businesses, universities and local political leaders are increasingly doing their part of the levelling up plan.

If we’re to become the high skill, 
high wage, high productivity 
economy we all want to see, Ministers need to finally step up with their 
own plan on education to develop Britain’s talent pipeline for the long term.

* Justine Greening was Education Secretary from 2016-18. She grew up in Rotherham.

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