The publication of Levelling Up the United Kingdom[1] adds some much-needed outline to a term that has become synonymous with this current government.

The phrase ‘levelling up’ alone is open to a wide range of interpretations  and applications in different contexts. A common theme in the reactions to the paper is that the plans are (broadly speaking[2]) laudable and ambitious, but lacking in detail.[3]

A lack of specificity is perhaps to be expected when the paper proposes entirely new programmes, and with a Schools White Paper on the horizon. In this piece we explore some of the key areas of interest for the world of educational assessment and qualifications.

Data improvements for the future

It is encouraging to see a commitment to improving social mobility data sharing in the paper. This is certainly a welcome development; connecting attainment and progress data with other socio-economic measures would be extremely valuable in ensuring equitably designed qualifications and assessment and understanding how qualifications are used.

It also heeds the call from the Social Mobility Commission’s The long shadow of deprivation[4]  to adopt more sophisticated data-sharing in the UK to enable (for example) a more complete analysis of earnings disparity between socio-economic groups.

The levelling up paper makes reference to a Treasury-approved list of priority outcomes and metrics published during the most recent spending review, but exact plans will not be announced until Spring 2022. It will be interesting to analyse these plans and consider their implications for assessment policy.

Promoting local growth

The White Paper outlines a series of global examples to demonstrate the desirability of local growth policies. An interesting example relevant to qualifications policy is the Ruhr valley:

‘…the Ruhr switched to an integrated rather than sectoral approach to strategy, with new universities underpinning the transition to a knowledge economy, investment in brownfield land to address ecological issues and establishing tourist attractions, and labour market and skills policy to increase the proportion of workers with vocational or degree level qualifications.’ Levelling Up the United Kingdom, p.103

This is a vivid and intuitive description (setting aside the problems of inter-state comparisons) since the example demonstrates how well-judged qualifications policy can contribute to local growth, especially when mindful of local needs.

The Levelling Up white paper offers some of the steps taken to follow examples like the Ruhr; the immediately obvious comparisons are the Institutes of Technology (IoT) and newly announced Unit for Future Skills. The paper presents a case study in the Black Country and Marches IoT, which exemplifies the collaboration between local FE, HE and employers that is the underlying purpose of IoTs.

Beyond this example, there is still a lot to be fleshed out here, as there is little further information on IoT development and process available, either within the report or more generally.[5] It will be interesting to see more detail on this aspect of the IoT programme, especially regarding its potential to harmonise education and skills training with flourishing local industries, and welcome the attention paid to integrated approaches.

The proposed Unit for Future Skills could have fascinating implications for curriculum and assessment and it is certainly an area AQi will monitor with interest as further details emerge, for example how it intersects with targets such as ensuring 90% of students study the Ebacc by 2025. The same applies to the UK National Academy, an online resource to ensure students are stretched academically, irrespective of geography.

Again, an exciting concept, particularly the implications for curriculum and assessment and how they can be used to ensure that geography is less of an influencing factor on exam preparation.

Building on existing work

There is substantial work afoot in terms of the Education Investment Areas, which builds on existing work done under the 2016 Opportunity Areas programme[6]. Indeed, the Opportunity Areas programme is something of a benchmark for social mobility-oriented education policy, since we have access to area plans, an evaluation of its implementation and insight guides.

While the extension of Opportunity Areas gives us something a little more concrete to explore, it also seems as if much of the detail of the extension via Education Investment Areas will be offered in the forthcoming Schools White Paper. For example, the DfE will have an opportunity to use this White Paper to present evidence justifying interventions such as mandatory conversion to academy status for underperforming schools[7], and to outline exactly what further funded elements will be available in the areas that are struggling for wider and more complex reasons than educational structure alone.

What next for levelling up and assessment?

Many of the programmes of particular interest to assessment and qualification policy are either in their early stages (IoTs) or newly announced (Unit for Future Skills and the UK National Academy). It is helpful to conclude by considering some of the unanswered questions that are raised by the paper:

  • What is the remit of the Unit for Future Skills? How far can it influence curriculum and qualification choices in the future?
  • How will the UK National Academy work? Will it build on the Oak National Academy? How can exam boards support the process?
  • What other examples of IoT best practice can be shared? What impact will they have on qualification choices around the country?

These are just a handful of questions that emerge from the publication of Levelling Up the United Kingdom – the answers will surely follow and will be of great interest and importance to qualifications policy.

[1] Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. (2022). Levelling Up the United Kingdom. [White paper]

[2] Examples of concerns related to, but falling just outside AQi’s purview include Geoff Barton’s (General Secretary of Association of School and College Leaders) rejection of the characterisation of ‘illiteracy’ and innumeracy’ in the paper, as well as the wisdom of creating ‘elite’ sixth forms in an underfunded post-16 landscape.

[3] E.g. Thomas Pope’s comments for the Institute for Government.

[4] Social Mobility Commission. (2020). The long shadow of deprivation: Differences in opportunities across England. [Report]

[5] The IoT website provides some information, as does the page, although there is not a great deal available on how IoTs work beyond these links.

[6]  See the webpages regarding the Opportunity Areas programme for these publications. Education Investment Areas expands Opportunity Areas through a number of interventions for 55 ‘cold spots’ around the country with the weakest educational outcomes. These interventions include (among others) retention payments for teachers and are likely to be the sites of new specialist sixth form free schools.

[7] Academies and maintained schools: what do we know? - Full Fact