Lord Gus O’Donnell – who served as Cabinet Secretary to three Prime Ministers – says a relentless focus on literacy and numeracy is as important to Yorkshire as new infrastructure.
Writing exclusively in The Yorkshire Post, Lord O’Donnell says below average numeracy costs the region’s economy £2bn a year and skills – and further education – demand greater priority.
“If levelling up is to mean anything, then it must mean something to people. That means diversifying the agenda, to invest in individuals and not just infrastructure,” he warns.
Last night, Lord O’Donnell’s comments were welcomed by leading MPs and education campaigners after a week which saw Sir Kevan Collins quit as the Government’s ‘schools catch up tsar’ in a row over funding and a “half-hearted approach” by Ministers.
There were also renewed calls for Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to quit amid renewed fears that levelling up, Boris Johnson’s flagship policy, lacks clarity.
Tory MP Robert Halfon, who chairs Parliament’s cross-party Education Committee, said: “Lord O’Donnell is absolutely right. The heart of levelling up must be about education and skills: ensuring everyone can climb the ladder of opportunity for jobs and security for themselves and their families.
“We need a long term plan for education with a properly resourced funding settlement. A plan which would not only repair damage that the pandemic has done to our nation’s children, but also reduces the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their better off peers.”
Mr Halfon also called for a “more skills-based curriculum” as Yorkshire’s Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner, challenged Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the Treasury to provide far greater support to help pupils catch up on lost learning after this week’s furore.
“Children need support to catch up on the weeks of learning they have lost, but many – especially disadvantaged children – also need support to get ahead,” she said.
“Investment in education catch up must be seen as an economic priority by Whitehall. Levelling up will not be a success unless it focuses on people.”
And Jonathan Geldart, director general of the Institute of Directors, added: “If the Government is serious about levelling up, a good place to start would be to encourage stronger links between our world-class universities and local businesses.”
No 10 Downing Street declined to comment on Lord O’Donnell’s remarks, referring this newspaper to the Treasury.
Last night a Government spokesperson said: “We are committed to levelling up skills and opportunities across the whole of the UK which is why we are introducing a Lifetime Skills Guarantee to ensure more people can get the skills they need to progress in employment.
“We have also announced a £2.5bn National Skills Fund to boost investment in vital skills across the country.”
However Lord O’Donnell urged them to shift focus. “To date, £163bn of the £172bn...earmarked for levelling up is intended to pay for roads, railways, housing and broadband,” he sets out.
“A boost to this kind of infrastructure outside London and the South East is well overdue, but the inevitable truth is that building byways and bringing train stations back into use will not be enough to improve people’s living standards.”
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