Earlier this year, the government published its much anticipated white paper, Levelling Up the United Kingdom, which outlined 12 interventions deemed necessary to tackle the regional inequalities that have grown in recent decades. In this blog, Dr Eric Lybeck argues that, at root, the government and its economists see this imbalance, not as the result of austerity, but as a productivity gap: between the parts of the UK that have benefited from a ‘high tech, high skill, high wage’ economy in recent decades – and those ‘left behind’ places that need to catch up. This framing inevitably leads to education and skills being at the heart of the proposed solutions. Yet, the purpose and the values of education, and the possibilities, or the limitations, of a refashioned industrial policy have not been considered.
- The need to address education and training for local areas is a key chapter of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. Place-based policymaking, done well, should address this issue by encouraging co-production of solutions designed with input from business, educators, local government and recent graduates.
- Local long-term jobs strategies must be matched with medium-term educational strategies to share industry knowledge with local youth and adult learners.
- Place-based policymaking is not a one-size-fits-all solution. At its most promising, it should encourage devolved regional authorities to share knowledge and ideas with similar and different places to pursue shared agendas.
The Levelling Up paper could have served as a prompt to develop a place-based educational policy suited to the variety of the nations’ regions. By turning its attention toward sub-national, regional assortments of data, the government is taking a step in the right direction to get beyond both the methodological nationalism and individualism that has limited policymaking for too long.
Regionalised data reveals the problem is not that individual students are short on skills – rather, entire places that have been deskilled over decades as a recent Regional Studies Association report notes:
‘Deprived areas have become trapped in low-skill positions in which the demand for low skills and lower wage work becomes matched over time by a local labour supply of these skills. Such areas experience a net inflow of low-skilled groups and a net outflow of the higher skilled (67)’
Expanding educational attainment in these post-industrial suburbs, seaside villages and market towns might well exacerbate the most concerning problem to these places: youth flight
The very premise of social ‘mobility’, that successive governments have promised, would mean that individual young people are incentivised to move from one (ostensibly worse) place to another (ostensibly better) one. Across decades, cities have experienced dramatic ups and downs as they slowly progressed toward greater social inclusion. However, at the same time, entire regions have seen themselves become ‘older’, less ‘skilled’ and and more ethnically homogenous than the rest of the country. Is it any wonder folks feel ‘left behind’ and nostalgic for better times when their local communities used to support a complex range of different classes, communities, and professions?
More ‘upskilling’ of individuals will not solve these long-term problems, which happened to places as places. Instead, we need to centre these entire disadvantaged communities (many of which the report rightly notes are in Greater London) in our educational strategies. What might this place-based approach look like in practice?
- Education and work need to develop strategically in particular places
In the UK, regional policymakers, communities and businesses would need to develop strategies to re-establish middle- and high-skilled occupations in ‘left-behind’ places so that a range of different services, that are necessary for a healthy, diverse local, national and international economy, can thrive. The challenge here is imagining forms of work that have either never existed in certain places, or have been lost as younger generations chased after graduate jobs elsewhere. Every place needs a long-term strategy to encourage the emergence or reconstruction of all forms of work in their local area: from foundational services to artisanal/craft and professional occupations. This long-term jobs strategy must be matched with a medium-term educational strategy to share industry knowledge with local youth and adult learners. The need to increase skills in local areas is also front and centre of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill which has an entire chapter dedicated to ‘Education and Training for Local Needs’. Local skills improvement plans are a corner stone of this section of the Bill and as it stands it appears that these plans will be driven by local employers’ needs. Whilst it is important that that jobs are available, and that employers are able to offer them, skills plans need to be produced in collaboration with not only employers, but communities, local government and schools. Making sure that a variety of voices in the community, from business leaders to educators, are involved in skills plans will ensure that jobs, skills and education are addressed alongside each other and not in isolation.
- Different kinds of places need different curricula
Every place is particular and unique, but policymakers and consultants often adopt a boiler plate ‘placemaking’ recipe that does not empower places to become distinctive, especially when every neighbouring town is using the same cookbook – for example, the range of ‘town deals’ recently approved by government. Place-based policymaking, at its most promising, encourages devolved regional authorities to link with similar and different places to pursue shared agendas. For example, seaside villages could share best practices, collectively boost tourism from abroad and perhaps re-imagine the British seaside as a source of wellbeing, health, fresh air and sustainable living. The skills necessary to pull this off would be very different from those needed to re-establish an exurban town once famous for craft glassmaking – though these artisanal professions could be linked together via expanded educational and vocational networks. What is most important is that each place sets its own creative agendas for itself in ways that can be realised through shared local and cooperative commitments to new forms of working and learning together.
- Communities need to co-develop and implement these strategies for themselves together with educationalists and recent graduates
The last thing ‘left behind’ places need is more top-down, prefigured policies developed in Westminster or, indeed, Manchester, based on imagined problems or over-extended applications drawn from one context and imposed on another. The only way a durable place-based approach to link education and work in particular places can succeed is if those local communities are agents in the construction of their own future. This will likely involve reconstruction of the past, including frank recognition of past exclusions and acknowledgement that certain kinds of work for may well be gone for good. Ultimately, the aim of creating varied, competitive and attractive jobs markets in our regions depends on coaxing talent out of our cities – which is to say: we need to incentivise university graduates to move back from city centres. Between all these stakeholders, past, present and future, conversations need to be had, opportunities discussed and decisions made.
These forms of mutual deliberation and the co-development of education and work in particular places will not happen spontaneously – to succeed communities will have to reverse trends that have hollowed out skills bases over decades. However, if pursued in good faith, we might look forward to a multitude of dynamic, innovative and sustainable local futures.
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