Since the new year, almost every meeting I’ve had has referenced the prime minister’s favoured new slogan, “levelling up”.
It’s a clever slogan: no one can really disagree with the principle of levelling up and its connotations of tackling inequality and creating fairness.
But what does levelling up really mean? The beauty of this statement is that it can work for everybody.
Northern areas feeling left behind in terms of economic growth and infrastructure? We need to level them up.
Affluent Shire constituencies feeling left behind because their schools don’t attract as much money as those in London and Birmingham? We’ll level them up.
Most people, irrespective of wealth, location or status, can sometimes feel a sense of injustice, and so the notion of levelling up is universally attractive.
But, when we strip away the populist appeal of the slogan, the concept can be misleading and can deter the public from genuinely progressive policies.
In education, the case for tackling inequalities is clear. By the time disadvantaged young people leave secondary education, they are, on average, more than 18 months behind their more affluent peers. We also know that around 40 per cent of that gap has already emerged by age 5.
Second, the regional disparities are stark – in some parts of the country, the gap at age 16 is closer to two years.
If the government really wants to level up achievement and opportunity in all parts of the country, then it needs to take a closer look at the consequences of policies over the past decade.
Fragmented, low paid and undervalued
In the early years, where disadvantaged children are already more than four months behind their peers, we have a fragmented, low-paid and undervalued workforce.
Rather than investing money and commitment to improving the quality of the early-years workforce (which we know really matters for improving outcomes for disadvantaged children), the government has neglected it, focusing instead on increasing childcare entitlements for working parents.
In addition to this, Sure Start children’s centre budgets have been cut significantly since 2010 – by around £1 billion, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies – further limiting the ability of vulnerable families to access support.
This is the opposite of what we should be doing. Recent evidence from the US demonstrates that investments in education are most cost-effective when they start early and are sustained into childhood.
At EPI’s annual lecture last year, Kirabo Jackson presented compelling findings that an additional 10 per cent in school spending leads to an additional 0.31 years of education.
For children from low-income backgrounds, this rises to 0.46 years. And impacts are greater still when coupled with investment in the US’s Head Start programme: the blueprint for Sure Start.
Professor Jackson also found an impact on later-life outcomes, including high-school graduation, wages and incarceration rates.
If the government could do only one thing this Parliament to tackle educational inequalities, I would argue with great passion that it should invest in evidence-based interventions in the early years.
Fortunately, the government can do more than one thing. If disadvantaged children are to succeed and have the same opportunities as their peers, they need to be in school.
EPI research finds that around one in ten 10 have been subject to at least one unexplained move from a school throughout their secondary years.
Around three-quarters of these pupils were vulnerable in some way: looked-after children, those with mental health and special educational needs, poor pupils and black pupils were all over-represented in the group of children who left school for unknown reasons.
There is no transparency over why these moves happened, and sometimes we don’t even know where the children ended up.
Addressing the causes, not just the symptoms
The debate about exclusions and “managed moves” is polarised, and characterised by pitting the needs of the one “disruptive” child against the needs of the other 29 in the class. It’s hard to argue against a case that the majority of children shouldn’t suffer because of the behaviour of a minority.
But it’s the role of government to protect all 30. However, the Department for Education’s current position on this is to support a “no excuses for bad behaviour” approach and to strengthen teachers’ powers to deal with bad behaviour and disruption.
Rather than just focusing on the symptoms, the government could consider addressing some of the causes. Local-authority children’s services have been cut by around 20 per cent per child since 2009-10, including a cut of around £900 million to youth services.
As our recent research found, a quarter of children are still being turned away from specialist mental health services. When they are accepted, they often face long waiting times.
In addition, the funding system for children with high needs is often inadequate, and incentivises schools to exclude rather than include pupils with special needs.
The debate about inequality needs to shift. The notion that “if you just work hard, you will achieve” is predicated on a meritocracy that does not yet exist.
Poverty and vulnerability are powerful drivers of disadvantage in this country, and cannot simply be ignored. If the government wants to really level up opportunity, it must move beyond ideological instincts and start following the evidence.
Natalie Perera is executive director and head of research, Education Policy Institute. Natalie will be at ASCL annual conference on Saturday 14 March, joining a panel discussion with Becky Francis and Jonathan Simons. More information can be found here.