Levelling-up rhetoric is largely meaningless

Penny-pinching boosterism

Lots of soundbites, no joined-up thinking. Derek James looks at the poverty of the latest ‘great debate’

Last week’s row over the government’s catch-up funding for education and the resignation of the head of the coronavirus education recovery task force, Sir Kevan Collins, has once again brought education back into the political limelight.1

At first sight this appears to be just another argument about levels of government spending and the resources devoted to education, with Labour arguing that the £1.4 billion recovery fund is “totally insufficient to help every child bounce back from the impacts of the pandemic”.2 These comments follow reports that Collins, who had been appointed in February this year to “oversee a comprehensive programme of educational catch-up”, had drawn up plans that required £15 billion to be spent on teachers, tutors and an extended school day.3 A major part of the Labour case is that as a result of lost learning during the pandemic there have been disastrous social and economic consequences, especially for the socially disadvantaged. Drawing on official figures, Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said the economic impact of this lost learning was “at least £100 billion, with a potential loss to the economy and the country of £420 billion”.4

However, this rather conventional, set-piece political row became more interesting when a number of Tories joined in the attack on the government’s plans. Backbench MP Anne-Marie Morris questioned whether the treasury “understands the real world”, following reports that chancellor Rishi Sunak had stymied the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, and his plans for a larger budget for the catch-up programme.5 Robert Halfon, former minister and Commons education committee chair, who has made quite a name for himself on education policy in the last few years, contrasted the treasury willingness to find £16 billion extra for defence last year and plans to spend £200 million on a royal yacht with its parsimony on educational spending. “So where there is the political will,” he argued, “the treasury can find the money from the back of the sofa, and there has to be that political will, because we need a long-term plan for education, a proper funding settlement.”6

Halfon’s reference to the need for “a long-term plan for education” highlights the political importance of education and its significance in government policy for the post-Covid economy.7 Thus, following the recent queen’s speech, Boris Johnson argued that a skills and training revolution was

the rocket fuel that we need to level up this country and ensure equal opportunities for all. We know that having the right skills and training is the route to better, well-paid jobs. I’m revolutionising the system, so we can move past the outdated notion that there is only one route up the career ladder and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to retrain or upskill at any point in their lives.8

For anyone who has worked in the education system for more than five minutes, this rather jaded ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric of opportunity and transformation will be tiresomely familiar and will undoubtedly be greeted with the usual cynicism by educational professionals, who have heard it all before. As one head teacher commented, “There’s no joined-up thinking; there’s a lot of soundbites.”9

Not to be outdone on the soundbites front, Tony Blair joined in with a few of his own. His contribution to what seems to be shaping up as yet another ‘great debate on education’ is to defend his policy of sending 50% of young people to university, alongside a call for “high-quality apprenticeships for the ‘other 50%’ who do not go to university”.10 Taken together, the rhetoric of Johnson, Blair, Halfon et al reveal both the underlying problems facing education and the real outlines of the wider policy debate that is now developing.


There is a long history in Britain of education being used as an instrument of economic and social policy. Although slow in comparison with powerful rivals like Germany in developing both mass and more specialist technical education, a combination of state and private/religious initiatives in Britain ensured that capitalism’s basic needs for a literate and disciplined workforce were provided for by the early 20th century.11

However, a constant theme in educational policy debates from at least the 1850s were concerns that the education system had to go beyond that minimum and be more closely tailored to the needs of the economy.12 Some critics went so far as to blame the failures of the education system for British capitalism’s decline and argued for policy initiatives to variously ‘modernise’ education, such as through the development of comprehensive schools in the 1960s or the training and enterprise councils in the 1990s. Likewise Blair’s ‘third way’ focus on “education, education, education” directly linked educational change and British capitalism’s economic success in the world market.13

However, for both Labour and Tory governments education has just as important a social and ideological function. The post-1945 welfare-state consensus and the ideology of meritocracy accorded an important function to education in what since the 1990s has become increasingly defined as ‘social mobility’ - the reformist policy that is proffered as the alternative to radical politics and socialist revolution.14 The rhetoric of such almost Fabian-like gradualism is now firmly part of the dominant political consensus, and it too finds its echoes in the current debates on how to “level up the country and ensure equal opportunities for all”.15 So, in the light of this history of supposed educational transformation, Johnson’s promises of yet another educational revolution might seem to be just the latest reworking of what, to many of us, is by now a tired old refrain.

That would be wrong. Both the rhetoric of levelling up and the political differences within the Tories on spending and taxation priorities revealed by this row have a wider political significance for our understanding of the possible future direction of the Johnson government. Whilst we can dismiss ‘Johnsonism’ as rather incoherent and lacking in substance, it is more than merely an opportunist combination of boosterism and bravado.16 The exigencies of the pandemic have produced a form of ‘Covid socialism’ that could herald a more interventionist state and increased deficits to finance a pre-election boom in 2022-23. Given the recent policy shifts proposed by Joe Biden and the minimum corporate taxation discussed by the G7 finance ministers, as well as the electoral advantages it offers the Tories, this might seem a logical direction for Boris Johnson’s government to take.17 Given the traditions of intellectual promiscuity and a reputation for carefully calculated opportunism that typify Toryism - “world beaters when it comes to stealing ideas”, as one commentator describes it - such a reorientation is completely in character for both the prime minister and his party.18

However, Rishi Sunak’s apparent blocking of Williamson’s education spending plans might point to the limited reality that underlies the levelling-up rhetoric.19 Sections of the Tory Party, including members of the cabinet, are said to be critical of ‘excessive’ spending and high levels of debt, and favour instead a return to ‘traditional’ Thatcherism and low taxation after the emergency of ‘Covid socialism’ is over.20 Given the record levels of state debt and borrowing during the pandemic, it is clear that the government’s future options are limited, especially with the constraints imposed by the Tories’ post-Brexit electoral strategy.21

At the moment the Johnson government is still benefiting to some extent from the success of the vaccine programme and will also surely reap electoral rewards from the inevitable boom and increase in consumer confidence, as the lockdown eases.22 The Tories also have a wide range of political weapons at their disposal, such as stepping up the culture war against ‘wokeness’ and tacking even further to the right in pursuit of a populist, ‘common sense’ agenda.23 Education could prove invaluable as a new front in that culture war too - albeit one where the policy shift has a sensible economic basis to train and upskill for the challenges facing ‘Global Britain’.

Given the changing global and internal dynamics ultimately shaping the government’s strategy, a definite future line has not yet emerged. Perhaps the G7 summit this week will clarify matters, but, however far it does so, the impact of events at home, the political balance within the cabinet and the political personality of Boris Johnson will still - as last week’s furore over education showed - be just as significant in shaping the future direction of the Tories and the state over which they preside.

  1. bbc.co.uk/news/education-57335558.↩︎

  2. ‘Labour plans to embarrass government over pupil catch-up’ The Observer June 6 2021.↩︎

  3. gov.uk/government/news/new-commissioner-appointed-to-oversee-education-catch-up; see also The Observer, op cit.↩︎

  4. Ibid; see also ons.gov.uk and search: “Coronavirus and the impact on measures of UK government education output : March 2020 to February 2021”.↩︎

  5. mailplus.co.uk/edition/news/education/74404/labour-plans-to-force-vote-on-totally-insufficient-back-to-school-funding.↩︎

  6. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/johnson-blasted-his-own-benches-education-catch-row-blows.↩︎

  7. lordslibrary.parliament.uk/queens-speech-2021-education.↩︎

  8. gov.uk/government/news/prime-minister-to-revolutionise-skills-and-training-opportunities.↩︎

  9. ‘The cost of catching up’ The Observer June 6 2021.↩︎

  10. thetimes.co.uk/article/tony-blair-defends-target-of-sending-50-to-university-c363m0gzm.↩︎

  11. B Simon The state and educational change: essays in the history of education and pedagogy London 1994.↩︎

  12. B Simon Education and the social order: British education since 1944 London 2000.↩︎

  13. theguardian.com/education/1996/oct/02/schools.uk.↩︎

  14. gov.uk/government/publications/improving-social-mobility-through-education; blogs.lse.ac.uk/businessreview/2019/11/09/how-to-improve-social-mobility; see also A Wooldridge The aristocracy of talent London 2021.↩︎

  15. gov.uk/government/news/prime-minister-to-revolutionise-skills-and-training-opportunities n.↩︎

  16. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/30/tories-faustian-bargain-lord-of-misrule-boris-johnson.↩︎

  17. ft.com/content/1e749857-3cd6-453d-8cee-2c501cbfd53b.↩︎

  18. economist.com/britain/2021/03/04/the-tories-are-world-beaters-when-it-comes-to-stealing-ideas.↩︎

  19. cityam.com/cabinet-ministers-back-tory-push-against-sunak-for-lower-taxes-post-covid.↩︎

  20. bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-07/tory-aid-row-spells-trouble-for-sunak-bid-to-heal-u-k-finances.↩︎

  21. ft.com/content/6539cbc3-5238-4d89-8e62-85ef0762283.↩︎

  22. politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/united-kingdom.↩︎

  23. economist.com/britain/2021/02/18/tories-bet-on-culture-wars-to-unite-disparate-voters.↩︎