“Why ‘levelling up’ in education is the key to sustainable growth” – Dr Julie Mills OBE

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It’s incredibly exciting to think that the government has recognised the potential for economic expansion over the next few decades in this region. Its most recently released think-piece on the subject came out a few weeks ago. The snappily-titled Planning for sustainable growth in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc – An introduction to the Oxford-Cambridge Arc Spatial Framework lays out the roadmap whereby Whitehall sees the area becoming a leading engine of growth beyond London.

It talks about the need for infrastructure improvement as a driver of this growth and the need for it to be sustainable from an environmental and economic perspective. Most encouragingly from the viewpoint of the Helena Kennedy Foundation it says, “As growth happens, we need to ‘level up’ opportunity and outcomes across the region to address the specific challenges the Arc faces.” It speaks of two major stumbling blocks to these grand ambitions; a lack of affordable housing and of a sufficiently skilled workforce. Of housing in particular it says, “The wider economic effect of this is to make it harder for businesses to attract the skilled workers they need, to locate in the most productive locations, and is forcing longer and more polluting journeys as people travel longer distances to get to work.”

Strange then, to note that one of the most obvious routes to deal with these dual problems gains not a single mention. You guessed it; while there are references to, “10 significant higher education institutions within the Arc,” there is not one single recognition of the existence or vital significance of Further Education (FE). The only mention of the word skills is the one above, lamenting the absence thereof.

This is most odd. One wonders whether the people who wrote the Skills for Jobs White Paper (released only a month before this report and which puts FE at the forefront of the drive for skills) and this one might have benefitted from sitting down and having a chat before publication.

A few observations:

The most sustainable way to find the skilled workforce for these infrastructure projects is to train them rather than to try to import them from other parts of the country. It’s cheaper and more efficient and the workers in question will already have an innate desire to improve their region. They’ll understand its rhythms, its bottlenecks, its strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, it directly tackles the levelling-up agenda by unlocking untapped potential, those who typically stop their education at 18, or even 16. And in doing so, opening up careers with higher pay and increased opportunities. On the housing front for example, a great way to make homes more affordable is to train people into the kinds of careers whereby it is feasible for them to get onto the housing ladder. Again, if you import all your skilled people the problem only worsens as incomer demand drives prices still higher.

We see the impact of supporting those who traditionally do not succeed in education day-in-day-out at the Helena Kennedy Foundation. We provide financial bursaries and access to a wide network of professionals who can support in so many other ways, to students from Further Education who are progressing to Higher Education. We build on the transformation the students have already experienced in their college and enable them to take their education further. You can see a few inspiring students here: Reports & Resources – Helena Kennedy Foundation (and from here make your way to the ‘donate now’ button please! Donate – Helena Kennedy Foundation)

The Spatial Framework talks about Inclusion as a core value. It also recognises that within what is easy to see as a fairly affluent area there are many communities with very high levels of deprivation. If a lack of inclusion in terms of affluence and employment is the challenge, education and training are most surely the solution.

The people who write government papers are experts in their field, they do not wilfully ignore the pivotal role of FE in the outcomes they are planning to achieve. They simply have no, or little, understanding of what FE is actually for. They probably didn’t go there.

This is the ultimate disconnect. Until and unless Whitehall employs its fair share of people whose own careers have prospered via the FE route there will never be the degree of comprehension required in SW1A to see how it is essential to these kinds of ambitions. Perhaps the team that wrote the Skills for Jobs White Paper could run some workshops for their peers.