DfE commitment to levelling up? It's just empty clichés

The government repeats the same old lines about 'levelling up' – while cutting funding for the poorest children, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Disadvantage, levelling up: Boiling kettle, emitting vast amount of steam

As an English teacher, I used to teach my students to try to avoid using clichés. In fact, I’d say to avoid them like the plague.

Could someone please teach the same lesson to government communications people? They currently seem to be locked into some kind of interdepartmental arms race to see who can work the phrases “building back better” and “levelling up” into as many press releases and ministerial speeches as possible. 

It’s almost as if they’re competing to be a “world-beating” government press team.

Here is a recent example from the Department for Education, which manages not only to use favourite buzzwords in the opening two paragraphs, but surpasses itself by shoehorning the same quotations into a speech by the education secretary as well. 

So we get: “We are just as determined as ever to make sure that every child gets the world-class start in life that we expect and that they deserve.”

And: “I want to be clear – improving outcomes for pupils is our number-one priority, and as we build back better from Covid, it’s more critical than it has ever been.”

And: “Our leading academy trusts and free schools now deliver an unrivalled education, but we must go further and faster if we are to complete the revolution, end the postcode lottery and truly level up the whole nation.”

Truly, in this kind of communication, no cliché is left unturned.

DfE: Robotic and trite repetition

Presumably, the reason for this robotic and trite repetition is that if you say something often enough then people will believe it is what you are really doing. Except that in education there is scant evidence that the government is doing anything of the sort. 

Only a couple of weeks ago, Sir Kevan Collins resigned as education recovery commissioner in protest at the government’s lacklustre plans for education recovery, which fell far short of what he – brought in as their expert adviser – had recommended. 

And, ironically, the press release mentioned above is not so much about “building back better” but doing exactly the same as in the past, with a return to the full grinding battery of tests and exams in 2022 that the government is so enormously keen on. It’s more like building back exactly the same. 

Then there is the shabby governmental ploy of a change in pupil premium rules that could have led to schools losing out on a huge amount of funding that is specifically designed to support disadvantaged pupils – surely the group of children it is most important to “level up”. 

Figures released on Thursday suggest that around 100,000 more children became eligible for free school meals between October and January, and should therefore qualify for pupil premium funding. However, the government has changed the rules on the timing of pupil premium data collection which – to cut a long story short – suggests that schools could have missed out on funding for many of these children. Tes estimates that this could be as much as £124 million.

As Jon Andrews, of the Education Policy Institute, commented, the Department for Education “should now publish its analysis of the impact of this decision on pupil premium allocations and clarify whether any savings from this have been redistributed”. 

Or, to put it less politely: “Where’s the money gone?”

Actions speak louder than clichéd words

And how squalid is this, from a government that quacks the clichés of representing the disadvantaged but put in place actions to undermine them.

Technical changes to the rules on pupil premium allocations will undoubtedly leave many members of the public glassy-eyed with a mixture of confusion and boredom – which is presumably why the government thinks it can get away with them – and may elude the prime minister’s reputed disregard for detail too. 

But behind all this complexity are real children who need and deserve support, and schools that are faced with the impossible task of how to provide it without this funding, and in the context of budgets that are already extremely tight. 

It is hard to square any of this with the idea of “building back better” or “levelling up”. On the contrary, what has actually happened is that teachers and leaders, deeply rooted in their communities, now have less money to support the disadvantaged children they know so well. And – shamefully – all this amid a pandemic.

Then there’s the wider social context of a steep increase in the number of children who became eligible for free school meals over the course of the pandemic. It suggests that the level of childhood poverty – which was already a terrible stain on our record as a supposedly caring country – has become a great deal worse as a result of the financial impact of coronavirus on many families. 

This all raises big questions for us as a society about how we do better for the vulnerable and disadvantaged in a country that ranks among the wealthiest nations in the world.

And it has enormous significance in the specific context of education, because of the simple fact that it is harder for children to learn when they have to cope with the grinding privations of poverty. Food – we remind you, ministers – isn’t a marginal issue to children’s wellbeing and progress. 

If “building back better” and “levelling up” are to have any real meaning, they surely have to be attached to ambitious and coherent policies, backed with sufficient investment, which genuinely address the blight of childhood poverty. It is an absolutely essential part of societal and educational recovery. 

Otherwise, as we’re starting to suspect, it just another monumental set of cold and cynical government clichés. 

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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