Creating elite new sixth forms will drive the opposite of levelling up”, college bosses on government White Paper

The government’s levelling up white paper contains many positive measures which are welcome – not least the rollout of Local Skills Improvement Plans, with funding, across England and the creation of a Future Skills Unit.

Its decision to highlight the misguided and illogical idea of creating elite sixth form free schools, however, is a red herring. Such sixth forms would be a scandalous waste of public money and do nothing for those young people who actually need more opportunity and support through us plugging the skills gaps – especially in growth areas like healthcare, engineering and manufacturing – to help them secure employment.

The young people who need more opportunity and help are those reaching age 16 who have fallen behind in their secondary education. Young people who achieve well at GCSEs and who would gain access to A level courses in new elite sixth form free schools have not fallen behind or under-performed. Creating elite new sixth forms would drive the opposite of levelling up.

We don’t think that new elite sixth form free schools are good news. And we don’t think they should be a first priority for much needed investment in post 16 education and training. New institutions competing against established sixth forms for a minority of young people will not help the majority of youngsters or the wider economy.  To direct public money at increasing the academic outcomes for a small number of already high achieving young people at the expense of the majority of their peers cannot be considered a wise or prudent use of public money. And it is definitely a strange way to attempt to ‘level up’.

Instead, we should be focused on high quality, vocationally-centred post-16 education and training, which so many young people and adults need. As our employers in the Leeds City Region and beyond keep telling us, we have vacancies around our county and across the country right now just waiting to be filled – but with too many job seekers who are currently lacking the required skills.

By collaborating closely with other further education colleges, local companies and chambers of commerce, we can ensure we are offering a comprehensive, joined-up skills programme that truly serves our communities and economy. That is the path to levelling up, and it will need to be supported by substantial investment.

Within Leeds we are desperate for additional post-16 capacity focused on vocational education and training. And it is through such courses that adults, as well as our young people, can access the skills and education they need to adapt to an ever changing jobs’ market and fill the vacancies of today and tomorrow.

Like everyone, we of course welcome the stated aims behind the levelling up white paper, to spread opportunity and prosperity more evenly across the country. 

To deliver the skilled workforce our regions, and our country, need will require a lot of work to improve access to high quality vocational education and training, and that is where our further education colleges have a vital role to play. It is through the training that our colleges can provide that our teenagers and adults will gain the skills they need to progress through life and truly ‘level up’.

We are ready and willing to rise to the challenge of helping 200,000 more people each year complete high quality skills training – one of the government’s 12 ‘levelling up missions’. To achieve this, however, we need the government to think sensibly about where investment in the education system is needed to really deliver on ‘levelling up’.

There are promising signs in the white paper that they are doing just that, for example through the creation of nine new Institutes of Technology for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) skills and a £550 million for the expansion of skills bootcamps.

An £18 million injection of funding, over three years, to create more supported internships for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) students is also very welcome, as are the proposals to provide £1.3 billion of support for employees with disabilities or health conditions and ‘pilot pathfinders’ to support people into work.

We look forward to hearing more details about these initiatives as we forge ahead, with our partners, to deliver the skills training that will turn the levelling up rhetoric into a reality.

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