Paul Warner is Director of Strategy and Business Development at The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP). AELP is a national membership body, proudly representing around 800 organisations. AELP members support thousands of businesses and millions of learners in England by delivering a wide range of training, vocational learning, and employability programmes.

During the 2019 General Election campaign, the Conservative Party made a commitment to ‘levelling up Britain’ following our exit from the European Union. Levelling up – spreading opportunity across the whole country – is certainly needed now more than ever, as we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Last month saw Government’s long awaited ‘Levelling Up’ white paper published.

In his introduction to the white paper, the Prime Minister points out that, although we have one of the biggest economies in the world, we also have one of the most unbalanced. Certain regions are more prosperous than others, and even within those regions there’s a local unbalance. If we are to make the whole of Britain more prosperous and productive, the levelling up agenda must make skills a priority. We need to ensure that every learner – whether they’re just leaving school or retraining later in life – can access the skills training they need.

Our members are ready to meet this challenge, but we need a government that will help them to do what they do best – supporting learners and employers with the skills they need.

Skills are at the heart of the levelling up agenda

Productivity and skills levels vary significantly across the country with London and the South East unsurprisingly being the two most prosperous regions. However, levelling up isn’t just a regional issue – it’s a local one too. Our most productive regions also host some of the UK’s least productive local authorities. This results in wide local variations. For example, the white paper highlights the situation in the East Midlands where 77.2% of the population of Rushcliffe have gained a level 3+ qualification compared to only 37% in nearby Bolsover.

We could go further – as the Learning and Work Institute have done – and look at health, earnings, child poverty and countless other indicators to show how unequal Britain is at both a regional and local level. There is a noticeable correlation between the areas with low skills outcomes and those with poorer living standards. This is holding back millions of people, as well as having a damaging impact on our overall economic growth. So, as we recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, all these measures lead back to the need for the UK Government to have a serious strategy to level up Britain. Because these differences are, of course, deeply ingrained, no strategy will solve these issues overnight. Any government promising to boost productivity, increase pay and living standards – especially in areas where they’re lagging – will need an ambitious, long-term plan.

The aspiration in the white paper to put skills, schools, and families at the heart of government plans to improve public services and level up left behind areas is to be welcomed. However, the white paper itself leaves a lot unsaid and relies on a repackaging of existing announcements and funding commitments. Far too little detail is given on how we can put skills at the heart of our goal to level up Britain. This, therefore, begs the question: how can we prevent the levelling up agenda being another missed opportunity to make every area of Britain a more prosperous, productive place? AELP have a number of ways in which we believe this can be avoided.

We must not forget level 2 and below

Qualifications at level 2 and below are often a vital route back into education for many learners. They can be life-changing and play an important part in promoting social mobility. We know that many key parts of the economy, which have previously over-relied on workers from EU countries, such as construction, adult social care, hospitality, and tourism, need more workers qualified at level 2.

That’s why we are deeply concerned about the impact of the Government’s current consultation on support for qualifications at level 2 and below. For the levelling up agenda to be a success, the qualifications being funded must reflect both demand from employers and the needs of learners. Ensuring a wide range of choice is available to learners at level 2 and below is fundamental to that – we would urge Ministers to think carefully before deciding which courses will no longer receive support.

One of the new announcements in the white paper included targeted intervention for 55 ‘cold spots’ in order to boost the take up training in some of the areas that need it most. Part of this was to ensure 80,000 more people complete courses in the lowest skilled areas. We would particularly be interested to find out how the government intends to make good on this promise at the same time they planning to massively reduce the number of qualifications they fund at level 2 and below.

UK Shared Prosperity Fund

The UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), which replaces the European Social Fund (ESF), is one of the most interesting aspects of the levelling up agenda and is a huge opportunity to shape skills provision across the country. People and skills should, of course, always be the primary focus for the fund, and if we are to take levelling up seriously, the fund should target the needs of adult learners with lower levels of qualification, as well as those who are otherwise disadvantaged.

However, despite the ESF finishing in 2023, the skills element of the UKSPF won’t be introduced until 2024/2025. This creates a worrying gap between ESF grant funding and the new UKSPF coming online. We would urge ministers to look at either speeding up the introduction of the skills element of UKSPF or find a way to mitigate the effects of this gap which will otherwise almost certainly involve the closure of provision and a corresponding reduction of choice and opportunity for learners. For much the same reason, the processes for accessing the fund also need to be streamlined by reducing the unnecessarily bureaucracy and complexities such as the match funding requirements that existed within the ESF.

Devolution: opportunities but also risk

Devolution has understandably been a major focus of early announcements around levelling up. Where evidence points towards improved take-up and delivery, we support the devolution of skills programmes. There are some programmes, however, that are best contracted at a national level with apprenticeships and traineeships fitting into this bracket.

Further devolution could create more opportunity to tailor skills needs to the local employers’ needs but there is also a risk of increased bureaucracy as providers are forced to bid for multiple pots of funding across the country, rather than a centralised pot.

Young people and levelling up

The need to level up has been brought into even sharper focus throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The economic impact of public health restrictions fell within many of the industries that younger people work in, such as leisure and hospitality. We want levelling up to mean every young person can access an apprenticeship, traineeship, or work placement, but that will need the reinstatement of incentives for employers to employ those groups and a much bigger focus on level 2 and below qualifications to maximise inclusion and opportunities in the labour market.

Supporting young people into good quality work also means they need to know what their options are. Proper careers advice and guidance is central to that – which is why we’ve championed enforcement of the Baker Clause. Colleges and employers must be invited into schools to talk about non-academic routes that are open to young people.

A relentless focus on skills

So far, the government’s record on levelling up has been too high on rhetoric and too low on action. Without focusing on the untapped potential of millions of potential learners, we risk missing an important opportunity to ensure that people in every part of Britain are able to reach their potential and contribute to our post-Covid economic recovery.

Levelling up will need a government that has a relentless focus on increasing skills right across the country, at all levels. The next few years will be crucial if we are to avoid missing yet another opportunity to see real change.