Levelling up for a fair education system - RSA

Levelling up for a fair education system


  • Education and learning

The government’s much anticipated Levelling Up White Paper sets out cross-society plans for system change, to spread opportunity and prosperity across the whole of the UK. The emphasis on education as one of the 12 missions within the strategy has been welcomed. But do the government’s proposals go far enough to ensure a fair education for all?

What does the paper propose for education?

The paper outlines ambitious proposals for:

  • Raising standards in literacy and numeracy at primary school
  • Increased investment in 55 Education Investment Areas
  • Supporting multi-academy trusts to expand into these areas to aid school improvement
  • Teacher retention payments
  • £560m investment in youth facilities and services

What is missing from the proposals?

While few would disagree theoretically with the aspiration to level up, one of the main questions that has arisen is whether this government strategy outlines sufficient new funding within education to make it truly meaningful. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has noted, even the highest performing areas will need to improve more quickly than current trends, as well as within existing budgets and against the backdrop of rising inflation.

In some important areas, such as child poverty, wellbeing and community partnership, the paper lacks specificity or mention. Organisations such as Child Poverty Action Group continue to make direct links between poverty and educational attainment, and school leaders have highlighted increased mental health problems and delays in social development, particularly throughout the pandemic.

Perhaps, however, the biggest concern is whether this white paper demonstrates a holistic appreciation and understanding of the purpose and value of education beyond its stated targets.

What else might be needed to level up our education system?

At the RSA we believe there is an acute need to support schools and practitioners to deliver an expansive and holistic education based on the three-fold purpose of education: to develop individual capabilities, build pupil agency, and support communities to overcome disadvantage and inequality between and within regions of the UK.

The RSA’s vision is that education systems provide all children with a rich education, one that supports both individuals and their communities to flourish. Our recent research, current projects and future ambitions are all in pursuit of this vision: of a fair education for all.

Promoting inclusion

Much recent work at the RSA has shown that inequities within education go far beyond geographic disparities. Our Pinball Kids project revealed that the damage caused by school exclusions falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable children. Those with special education needs and disabilities (SEND), adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and those from certain ethnic minority groups are disproportionately excluded from education, due to numerous complex, overlapping systemic factors.

Within the final report we recommended additional investment through the high needs funding block for public services and schools to work collaboratively to prevent exclusions. We also highlighted the importance of a supportive web of relationships that should be present in every child’s life, and the need for government investment to support multi-agency working between schools and other statutory services. This is something we are now exploring and facilitating through the three-year Preventing School Exclusions project in Oldham, Worcestershire and East Sussex.

Last year we also released our Inclusive and Nurturing Schools Toolkit, which provides practical guidance based for schools and local authorities to support all pupils to develop the social and emotional capabilities necessary for lifelong flourishing.

Expansive education

We also concluded our Learning About Culture project, which examined the relationship between arts participation and improved academic performance. Evaluation of the project provided evidence for the potential impact that arts-based education can have on social skills, self-efficacy or ‘ideation’ and strengthened our belief in the role that the arts have to play in the threefold purpose of education.

We also believe that the needs within education go beyond raising attainment in literacy and numeracy alone. Our longstanding Pupil Design Awards encourage secondary students to use design thinking to tackle real life challenges and in doing so develop skills in areas often neglected by a narrowing curriculum: problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. Through participation in the project, pupils come to believe in their own ability to produce creative outcomes that could lead to social change in their own communities.


An earlier RSA project, Schools Without Walls, examined how schools globally are extending their impact beyond the school gates. We highlighted how partnership working with the local community can be transformative in schools. Not only does collaborative partnership with local communities prepare young people for future work and build knowledge and skills through real-world learning, but the project also demonstrated how it can be used to overcome the barriers to learning that presented by living in poverty. The examples of successful partnerships explored in the report demonstrate that we need to develop policies and promote practices that enhance schools’ abilities to work in partnership with their local communities.

RSA4, a pupil-led youth social action project for Year 4 students, has demonstrated the benefits that a social action programme can have on both young people and the wider community. Our Citizens of Now report, which celebrates the achievements of this project, challenges us to see primary-age pupils as active citizens with agency and provides practical guidance for teachers on how to facilitate high-quality youth social action. Our ambition is to continue to learn about how best to enable schools to embed high-quality social action opportunities for pupils.

What’s next for fair education?

Later this year, we will launch our new RSA Education Network, which will be central to the RSA’s strategic commitment to forwarding a Fair Education agenda. Building on the legacies of the RSA Academies and our existing networks within education, the new Education Network will provide a knowledge sharing – and creating – platform for practitioners, young people, researchers, and entrepreneurs aligned to the RSA’s vision of fair education for all. It will increase opportunities for collaboration between members and amplify the voices of young people and practitioners in the research and programmatic work of the RSA. We look forward to being able to announce more details later in the year.

The need to level up our education system is irrefutable, and the government’s bold ambitions within the paper mark the first step in the journey towards this. Much more needs to be done and we hope to see more of the components outlined in our vision for a fair education within the subsequent Schools White Paper, anticipated for the spring.

Please do get in touch with us at [email protected] to be kept up to date on future developments!

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