‘Levelling up’ has become a common phrase recently, but what does it mean? It’s common to say that we don’t know, and that the government doesn’t know either. And there are certainly plenty of different definitions out there. But the one that speaks to me is one framed by someone familiar to readers of this blog, Michael Gove, in a post reshuffle Sun interview. For him (and me), it falls into two parts: having local pride in an area (by improving the quality of local amenities to make it a nice place to live), and in the longer term, delivering jobs and economic opportunity.

What should qualifications do?

So if that’s our aim, how can qualifications support that? What should they do? What should they not do? I want to posit that there should be four tests for a qualification, from this perspective.

Qualifications should… Have a labour market return for those who take them

That return should be reasonably secure, over a predictable timeline. Importantly, a return should be measured against other people in that area. No qualification is going to turn a local lower wage economy into a richer one on its own, and that means that someone in Teesside is on average going to be paid less than someone in Twickenham. But if a qualification gives a Teessider a wage lift compared to his or her peers without that qualification, then it is a success in my view.

Qualifications should… Improve outcomes for the holders of that qualification

This goes wider than economic return, of course. So a qualification that solely improved wages would be fine, but ideally it would indeed improve wider outcomes as well. It would boost people’s health, or their cultural or social awareness, or it would offer them new opportunities, or it would allow them to simply be cognisant of the history (writ large) of subjects, disciplines, trades and professions.

Qualifications should… Create new opportunities

A qualification should allow its holder to do different things. This could be in their current job, if they have one, but it could also open up opportunities for new jobs, or the next period of study, or for non-work opportunities (to travel abroad, to speak a new language, or to be able to appreciate or participate in art or music). The most pertinent question is whether a qualification should allow someone to leave an area – and I will come back to this below

Qualifications should… Hold muster with qualifications taken in more affluent parts of the country

This is perhaps the most important test. Is it a qualification for the whole of the country? And even if it theoretically is, is it in practice? I worry a lot about qualifications, often in the vocational and technical space, designed in good faith but for which we have a high degree of empirical past evidence are likely to tend to be taken by those from lower socio economic backgrounds. Young people (and adults) taking such qualifications are not being helped to level up. Indeed, they may be being left behind.

One of the most taxing philosophical questions for me about levelling up is about whether it is success if young people – aided by their qualifications – leave an area. In that Gove interview, he uses the phase “stay local, to go far”. His answer is that no one should need to leave an area to do well, and that must be right. But equally, I’m uncomfortable with a view that qualifications, and institutions who deliver them, should incentivise people to stay in an area. When we’ve polled or done focus groups on this question, people are torn. Older people, in particular, want their local towns to improve, and want them full of young people. They are sad that they leave and (mostly) don’t come back. Yet at the same time, they recognise that where opportunities are scarce, it’s the right thing to do – and some say fervently that they’d urge their children and grandchildren to leave as soon as they can; for university, or for jobs, or just generally.

What should policymakers do?

The above four tests provide a solid framework, but what does this mean for policymakers? For policymakers thinking about qualification design, I would posit three conclusions:

Policymakers should… Recognise and accept that parent and employer views play a strong view in uptake and use of qualifications

This is frustrating for many people in the sector, who feel such views are often out of date, or stereotyped, and that good qualification design shouldn’t be shaped by parents and employers. Of course, such views are not fixed in aspic. But one can’t simply wish away the fact that perceptions are slow to change, and perceptions matter. If people don’t know a qualification, then they may be less likely to take it: parents will be unlikely to recommend it, and employers may not use it, diminishing its labour market value and weakening its levelling up benefit. Qualifications which have been introduced too quickly and underplayed the importance of such opinion (such as Diplomas) have failed. Qualifications which have recognised this- such as T-Levels – may (may) succeed.

 Policymakers should… Be very careful and cautious when introducing new qualifications

It’s not clear to me that we are in fact underserved by qualifications in this country. We have many awarding organisations – some large, and some small. We have thousands of approved qualifications offered by those AOs. And we have some large and recognised brands, both academic and vocational. For anyone wanting to introduce a new qualification – by which I mean brand, rather than subject – I would push back hard on what the specific gap is that needs to be filled. Given the importance of recognition to a qualification’s success, and given the importance of success to achieving Levelling Up goals, it needs to be seen that a new qualification will take many years before we know if it has worked. The opportunity cost of people taking unknown qualifications is high. So the bar for diverting them from well-known ones to new ones (and especially if, as with BTECs, older ones are proposed to be abolished to make space for new ones) should equally be very high.

 Policymakers should… Recognise that qualifications that are seen as for ‘other people’s children’ very quickly become so.

This follows logically from the two points above. People and parents are small c conservative – especially, in my experience working qualitatively – in the levelling up parts of the country. They want to take qualifications that will give returns and are recognised. They want them to give opportunity. Qualifications which people think are not for their own children, very quickly become those, as more affluent parents and pupils opt out. This is particularly the case for those that start at 14, and that are framed as alternatives to traditional academic education. We have seen this time and time again, and yet the appetite for creating them remains undiminished. For everyone who is attracted to an alternative pathway – and there are some – there are many more for whom this screams out loud that it is not going to be a valuable qualification. Almost every parent and student wants to get good qualifications – and for many people, this is linked to going to university, or academic success. Framing something as alternative to school, or for those who are bored of or who struggle to succeed there, is terrible implicit messaging to those people who you want to be attracted to this qualification.

How do we ‘level up’?

Although it may sound compassionate, providing a whole suite of new qualifications before 16, or experimenting with new approaches, especially ones which are focussing on new areas for people who don’t like school, will in fact hold children back. We need one set of consistent pathways for every young person, up to 16. This should be focussed on a broad and balanced academic (small a) curriculum, with a range of different qualifications and AOs available for schools and colleges to draw from. Exceptions to this should be rare, as should new pathways at 14.

At 16, we should have much wider pathways, and qualifications to match – in academic, technical, professional, and in creative and cultural disciplines. These should offer opportunity for young people and adults throughout their lives, including opportunities and funding to retrain.

That is how we get levelling up.

Jonathan Simons is a Director and Head of the Education Practice at Public First.

As part of AQi’s work, we are inviting people from a wide range of viewpoints to engage with us on a wide range of topics. We welcome alternative views to help stimulate discussion and ideas. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent the views of AQi or AQA.