Ahead of Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt’s Spring Budget this week, our Director of Research & Policy Carl Cullinane looks at what could, and should, be included if the government wants to re-invigorate its aim to level up education.
With the Spring Budget due this week, there has been significant speculation and discussion of what shape it might take. This is Jeremy Hunt’s second ‘fiscal event’ as chancellor, but the first allowed little room for manoeuvre, acting as an exercise in damage limitation after the autumn’s economic upheaval. This leaves a number of open questions as to whether this week will see any loosening of the purse strings, particularly in light of recent reports of increased fiscal ‘headroom’ due to lower than expected borrowing, higher tax receipts, as well as lower energy costs. It also raises the question of what the government’s policy priorities are. With the focus on inflation, public sector pay, and energy bill support, will there be room for education, social mobility or levelling up?
Back in January the Prime Minister set out his key priorities for 2023. While these unsurprisingly focused on the economy and the NHS, there was also a commitment to providing maths to all in post-16 education. While this aim is laudable, many have highlighted the practical barriers to its implementation, not least the huge shortage of specialised teachers, especially in the most deprived areas. We remain several years from implementation of such a policy, but the groundwork on the workforce will need to begin soon. Beyond this key prime ministerial policy, there are any number of areas calling for investment tomorrow. But if the Chancellor wants to kickstart the levelling up agenda in education once again, here are a few he could be looking at.
The cost of living crisis has loomed large in the run-up to Wednesday, in particular the expiry of the energy price cap in April. There has been significant pressure to do more to support families struggling to make ends meet. Our research in recent months has highlighted the challenges of the crisis being felt in schools and universities. Teachers are seeing increasing numbers of pupils coming to school tired, hungry, without adequate warm clothing, and unable to afford lunch. While the anticipated extension of the energy price guarantee, as well as reducing bills for those with pre-payment meters will be welcome, it seems unlikely to be enough for many families.
More targeted support for the least well-off pupils, including extending Free School Meals to all those in receipt of universal credit should be prioritised. Children cannot learn effectively while living in poverty, and there is a real risk of the crisis deepening the long-term issues already faced by this generation of pupils. We all want to feel that we’ve moved on from the dark days of lockdown. But for many young people, the after-effects of the pandemic are far from over. If there is no further investment in education recovery and narrowing the attainment gaps that have opened wide, we risk blighting the life chances of a whole generation, in particular those from the least well-off backgrounds whose education and wellbeing has been impacted most. Delaying the proposed cut in subsidies for ‘catch up’ tutoring through the National Tutoring Programme would be a start.
In higher education, many students have reported cutting down on essentials, skipping meals, and taking on extra paid work that has negatively impacted their studies. And yet maintenance support is only scheduled to increase by 2.8% in September for English students, compared to 9.4% in Wales. This needs to be addressed, lest access to university for those from families without significant financial means goes backwards.
While rumoured changes to make it easier for universal credit recipients to claim childcare costs are welcome and a sensible first step, the scale of the challenge is much greater.
Skills, skills, skills
With Gillian Keegan, a former apprentice, and Robert Halfon, a long term champion of apprenticeships, as ministers in the Department for Education, it would be no surprise to see apprenticeships as a key priority for the department. February saw the welcome announcement of a partnership between government and UCAS to make finding information about, and applying to, apprenticeships much more accessible, and on a par with the university application process. However, none of this will have an impact unless there are enough opportunities open to young people to back it up. Apprenticeship starts among young people have been tumbling, and new data just this week has highlighted that hundreds of millions of pounds of Apprenticeship Levy funding continues to be spent on senior leadership apprenticeships for high ranking executives, an issue raised in our research on degree apprenticeships in 2020.
If we are to match rhetoric with reality and harness the potential for apprenticeships to drive social mobility then we are going to need concerted action by government to do so. Either the levy should be tweaked to incentivise apprenticeships that are more in the spirit of the policy, or government should target additional investment at increasing the supply of high quality apprenticeships which are genuinely new opportunities, open to young people leaving school. Investment could be targeted geographically in order to boost supply in left behind areas to level up opportunities, as well as targeting particular industries in need of an injection of skills. Such a scheme to ‘level up’ apprenticeships would have wide benefits for social mobility, the geographical distribution of opportunity, as well as the wider economy.
The Prime Minister has previously framed himself as a champion for skills to drive economic growth. But if we are to realise that vision, despite the tight fiscal environment, we need investment now in return for gains later, both for young people and workers themselves, but for the economy in general. While the country faces many challenges and demands at this moment, it is beyond high time for us to start prioritising the next generation.
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