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Levelling Up Commission – Education  

education

In June, the Levelling Up Commission held an online inquiry session on education inequalities in the United Kingdom. The session was split into three panels – the first focused on SEND and Pupil Premium, the second looked at higher education outcomes for disadvantaged students, and the third looked at employment gaps in the skills sector. 

The session was hosted by the Commission’s Chair, Paul Sheriff, a former Shadow Minister for Social Care and Mental Health and Women and Equalities. Sheriff was joined in all three panel sessions by external experts who provided invaluable insight to Commission members on the various issues currently plaguing the education sector.  

SEND and Pupil Premium 

In session one, the two expert panellists were Jo Hutchinson – the Director of SEND and additional needs at the Education Policy Insitute – and Nick Watkiss – a former Ofsted Inspector who is now a senior education consultant.  

Both panellists provided expert insight into SEND and Pupil Premium within education, offering suggestions for how provision could be improved across the sector for disadvantaged pupils. 

Hutchinson spoke passionately about why the current SEND funding system does not work. Referencing historical data and analytics, she explained that “since COVID-19, trends have now reversed and attainment gaps have widened.” She added, 

“One of the biggest issues around SEND is the funding system. It starts with the Treasury and Department for Education, who set the funding pot before they dish it out to local authorities.” 

“The problem is that the formula for who gets what money is based on historic spending – how much each area used to spend on special needs before funding was centrally allocated. Quite a lot has changed since then so that causes problems.” 

Watkiss spoke more about Pupil Premium, a government policy introduced in 2011 that dictates that how much funding a school gets is based on how many pupils in the school “qualify” for it. The criteria for awarding Pupil Premium funding is mainly based on children in schools who are eligible for free school meals now or at any point over the past six years. 

Talking about the pitfalls of Pupil Premium, Watkiss said, 

“Once funding is received, schools decide how best to use this money to benefit disadvantaged students. It is worth noting that these aren’t personal grants for individual students, they are aggregated grants provided to each school to use how they judge it would best benefit disadvantaged children across the board.” 

“At times, depending on how this funding is used, it can be used to benefit other students as well.” 

Does Higher Education Affect Inequality? 

In panel two, Sheriff was joined by Professor Lindsey Macmillan – Director at the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities at University College London – and Doctor Hollie Chandler – Director of Policy at Russell Group.  

Professor Macmillan provided the Commission with some eye-catching data on university outcomes for disadvantaged students. Talking about some of the headline points from the data, she said, 

“Bangladeshi women are one of the lowest participating groups despite their strong performance at age 16 with exam results. Meanwhile, Black Africans are far less likely to receive a first or a 2:1 despite being the most likely disadvantaged group to go to university when compared to their White counterparts.” 

“When reporting on reasons for this, a lack of representation at British universities comes through as a huge reason. We need to do better. Targeted campaigns can improve participation of disadvantaged groups and universities need to focus more on keeping their students rather than just getting them in in the first place.” 

Supplementing the data provided by Professor Macmillan, Doctor Hollie Chandler was on hand to give some examples of initiatives that are being run by Russell Group Universities to better support and encourage disadvantaged students. She said, 

“Our data shows the support we’re providing is working – disadvantaged students are now more likely to complete their degree and continue with more education or go into a high-paid job than the same students at non-Russell group universities.” 

“There are still gaps though, so more needs to be done. All of our members have plans in place to make progress, including outreach programmes with local schools and colleges, and dedicated programmes for disadvantaged applicants.” 

Skills Shortages Across Many Sectors 

The third and final panel session was about the employment gap in the skills sector across the country. Sheriff was joined by Emma Roberts – Director of External Affairs at WorldSkills UK – and Kate Shoesmith – the Deputy Chief Executive Officer at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation.  

Emma Roberts informed the Commission of the work that WorldSkills UK have been undertaking in recent times to try and improve the skills of young people in the country. She spoke about raising standards through “international benchmarking and best practice”. One way in which WorldSkills UK are doing this is by looking after Team UK in the Skills Olympics.  

“This competition features thousands of young people all over the world competing in their skill/profession to be crowned the best in the world. These areas cover every sector you can think of, from cyber security to hospitality, and it’s a competition that allows young people to excel internationally.”  

“We are the Government’s representative and we put forward young people who go through our programmes to represent us on the global stage. As well as training Team UK, we are using the experience at these Olympics to bring back knowledge to help thousands more young people get a leg up in their technical training.” 

Meanwhile, Kate Shoesmith had vital data to hand in relation to the demand and uptake of skill-based job vacancies in the UK. It showed a distinct lack of skilled workers in the UK, something Shoesmith believes should alarm the Government. She said, 

“Last year, we looked at economic modelling and found that by 2024, the cost of job vacancies to the economy will be £39bn. It is essential that we do something to change this, and perhaps the Government needs to look at it from an economic perspective.” 

“They have a huge part to play in this, but we also want to be clear there is a role for businesses to play, too. They need to think about partnerships with vocational providers in their communities to help young people as they start their careers. We need businesses to change how they think about skills – it is an investment, not a cost.” 

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