The levelling-up agenda is far too narrow

The Prime Minister is in trouble. Less visible is the fact that his signature policy is as well. Two years after Boris Johnson made “levelling up” the lodestar of his administration, half of the public have no idea what it means. The levelling-up white paper has been delayed twice. Money has been spent – £3.6 billion on the Towns Fund and £4.8 billion on the Levelling Up Fund – but the Chancellor is resisting putting his hand in his pocket for more. So it is likely that the now-imminent white paper will go heavy on medium-term targets with strong emphasis on devolution and the reform of local government. That is no bad thing. There are no quick fixes to Britain’s deep structural problems. But the bald truth is that unless the levelling-up agenda changes people’s everyday lives for the better, it will end up being a damp squib.

The PM’s instinct is to address place-based inequality through new capital investment – new roads, railways, green projects and the like. Disadvantaged areas are clearly in need of such investment. But without better schools, skills, jobs and careers the levelling-up agenda will run into the sand. Put simply, the labour market and educational interventions need to be far better aligned with capital and fiscal ones.

Addressing inequality between regions is, of course, very important. But there are plenty of other equity issues that must be tackled if the discontent of “Left Behind Britain” is to be properly addressed, the most urgent of which is the scourge of intergenerational unfairness.

Medically speaking, older people suffered the most from the pandemic, but it is the young who seem doomed to suffer the biggest economic and social consequences. More than half of under-25s had been furloughed or lost their jobs last June, and almost half a million are still unemployed. Grandparents and parents alike are concerned that the social progress they enjoyed will not be repeated for this and future generations of young people.

They are right to worry. In 1995-96, 65 per cent of those aged 25-34 with incomes in the middle 20 per cent for their age owned their own home. Twenty years later, that figure was just 27 per cent. Perhaps even more alarmingly, barely one in eight youngsters from a low-income background will go on to become high-income earners as an adult.

It is clear that education holds the key to improving Britain’s lamentable record on social mobility. Between 2009-10 and 2019-20 spending per pupil fell by 14 per cent in real terms for the most deprived secondary schools, while the least deprived schools experienced a 9 per cent drop. And the pandemic has exacerbated the problem: early studies indicate that the attainment gap between children from lower and higher income homes – which was already gaping – increased over the period of school closures. This is what you might call levelling down, and it is what happens when education is treated as distinct from levelling up.

In the long term, raising school standards to close the attainment gap between better-off pupils and the less well-off is the best levelling-up policy the Government can adopt.

But there is more that can be done in the short term. The pandemic has accelerated an educational arms race where those who can afford the best digital access, the best tutors and the best opportunities for their children win out. The Department for Opportunities, which I chair, has made several recommendations that the Government can act on right now to make the lives of poorer children better: reform the failing National Tutoring Programme; redesign the National Funding Formula and introduce a student premium for disadvantaged 16 to 19-year-olds.

Business, too, has a critical role to play and must be incentivised to create opportunities for skills development and career opportunities in those parts of the country where they are most needed. Free ports and smarter town centres are simply not enough. The Government must seize this moment and make education a national priority once again. Unless and until our poorest children are given the tools they need to succeed in life, the ambition to truly “level up” will always be out of reach.

Alan Milburn is the chair of the Social Mobility Foundation

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