Learning to level-up: Three equalizing education reforms

  • Living standards and Levelling up

Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility, University of Exeter 

In this piece Lee Elliot Major emphasises the importance of education in the drive to level up and proposes three reforms each with a proven track record backed by evidence from the social sciences.

Three minutes on the airwaves is not long to discuss a Government policy that could dominate political debate for the coming years. But when I spoke on the BBC’s Today programme  recently I was able to welcome the Prime Minister’s comments on levelling up. Boris Johnson had confirmed education’s central role in the drive to boost opportunities for people across the country. “What we’re able to do is offer families up and down the land, offer them tuition that they otherwise wouldn’t get,” explained the Prime Minister, referring to the Government’s national tutoring programme. “And that’s what I mean by levelling up.”

At the time of writing we know little more than the bare bones of this central Government priority – an attempt to improve skills, transport infrastructure and housing outside London, particularly in the country’s Red Wall areas – alongside relocating some of its civil servants. The programme is likely to be fleshed out far more over the coming months. In Michael Gove, an effective Whitehall deliverer, we have a Secretary of State for Levelling Up. A White Paper is promised by the end of 2021. And in the Autumn the Government will unveil the outcomes of its latest spending review.

To give real life to this policy, the Government needs to look to develop children and young people across the life-course from cradle to career. It is a national scandal that where a child happens to be born has such a profound impact on their prospects. The pandemic has exacerbated the geographical divides that scar our green and pleasant land. If we are serious about levelling up, we must embrace education.

Levelling up life’s unequal playing field is a metaphor I’ve used to present on Britain’s social mobility problem.

Now is the time to consider education reforms that have the potential to equalise opportunities for society’s left behind. Here are three that are backed by compelling evidence produced by social scientists, are eminently do-able, and wouldn’t cost that much either.

University-led tutoring

I first championed a national tutoring service when it emerged that millions of pupils could suffer damaging learning loss during the pandemic. To be frank it shouldn’t have taken a national emergency to inspire such a programme in the first place. We’ve known about the strong evidence highlighting the impact of one-to-one and small group tutoring on pupil progress for years. It is one of the best tools we have in our educational toolkit to bolster the core efforts of teachers in the classroom.

As the Prime Minister noted, the boom in private tutoring has been fuelled mainly by middle-class parents able to dig deep into their pockets to give their children extra help. It is part of an arms race in education that has seen them pull further ahead of their poorer counterparts.

We have developed detailed proposals for a university-led tutoring scheme as part of our research on levelling up in the south west. The idea would be to recruit undergraduate students to tutor disadvantaged pupils in their local region. Student volunteers would be offered academic credits for their tutoring; non-profit tutoring providers would provide training, and groups of schools would ensure that tutoring integrates with the work of teachers. A realistic future aim could involve 25,000 students benefitting 100,000s of pupils every year.

Results from a randomised trial in Italy have reaffirmed the benefits of using undergraduates as tutors. Disadvantaged pupils who were randomly selected for 3-6 hours of free online tutoring from university students did better academically than their peers who were not given the same opportunity. Another study, this time in Germany, also found significant benefits for pupils when mentored by university students.

A university-led tutoring scheme in the UK would help to address one of the major challenges facing England’s current national tutoring programme: the paucity of quality tutors available around the country to deliver it. The programme could be seen as the parallel of AmeriCorps in the US – a chance to tap into the volunteering instincts of the younger generation.

School-led community hubs

A central quandary in social mobility debates is that while out-of-school factors account for over 70-80% of the variation in children’s educational outcomes, we focus 70-80% of our efforts on what happens inside schools. The evidence from social science is clear: to level-up we must act both outside and inside schools. Important as it is, great classroom teaching on its own will never narrow the attainment gaps between poorer pupils and the rest.

This is why school-led community hubs providing wraparound support for pupils outside the school gates have the potential to achieve greater impacts than more limited school only approaches. The wraparound approach will already resonate with many schools. They have become as much centres of social welfare as sites of learning. School-led hubs offer a middle way between the community-focused and school-centred approaches that so often split social reformers.

An important test case is the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) in New York, a community initiative offering services from free meals, legal advice, medical services and substance abuse treatment to parenting programmes and job training. So far the results have been mixed. On the plus side, the maths achievement gap between black pupils in the Promise Academies in HCZ and the average for white students in New York disappeared.  Yet other children benefitting from the community interventions but not attending the academies, failed to produce such impressive achievement gains.

We now need to evaluate the impact of hubs that have emerged in the UK. Reach Foundation’s existing Cradle to Career (C2C) programme is already being scaled up to more schools across the country. The central idea behind the Reach model in West London is to use the school’s central place in a community to address the multiple dimensions of disadvantage targeting everything from family support to mental health. Evaluations would enable us to develop a blueprint that other schools could follow, creating a national model that could transform thousands of young lives.

Vocational options

Finally we must face up to a central policy question that has dogged the education system for decades: how do we make it more engaging for all pupils with creative, vocational as well as academic talents while maintaining standards for all children?

What’s clear is that the current approach isn’t working. We currently label around a third of children in England as failures at age 16 after 10 years of schooling. They fail to gain a basic pass in their GCSEs in English and maths, with many condemned to retake exams only to fail again. A significant minority of children – many from working class communities in costal and rural areas – don’t see education as a route to getting jobs.

Rather than trying to shoehorn individuals into a narrow academic system, we need to consider reforms to cater for a wider range of talents. A dual approach to upper secondary schools would offer a credible vocational stream, linked with employers, alongside current academic routes, and perhaps include a school certificate that all pupils would be required to pass.

Children could be assessed against a basic threshold of key skills. Maths and English language GCSEs could each be split into two separate qualifications: a compulsory test examining basic numeracy and literacy skills, and a separate exam for pupils to study the subject in more depth.

For too many children, the academic approach is not working. The world’s most effective technical education systems offer pupils academic and vocational options from age 14 alongside a solid foundation of core skills. There are many opportunities to transfer between academic and vocational streams.

A valid vocational pathway need not mean a drop in status or education standards. It may prove to be more useful preparation for the new technological workplace. Academic snobbery is the main obstacle preventing change — a misguided belief that technical education is about “shabby premises and dirty jobs down in the town”. Some have argued that academic streams should not be the exclusive preserve of posh pupils. Yet this logic has drifted into the flawed assumption that all children should pursue an academic education. We need a rethink.


I hope these three ideas get the attention they deserve in the levelling up debate, among many other possible promising education reforms. Our Prime Minister should heed the advice of a Tory leader who attempted to rejuvenate inner cities for the previous generation. As the former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine stated in evidence to the Commons business innovation & skills Committee in October 2016 “it is about education and then about skills”. Failure to understand this social mobility truth will scupper any efforts to genuinely level-up our divided society.


Dobbie, W. and R. Fryer (2011) ‘Are High-Quality Schools Enough to Increase Achievement among the Poor? Evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone’, American Economic Journal: Applied, 3, 158-87.

Dyson, A., Kerr, K. and Wellings, C. (2013) Developing children’s zones for England: What’s the evidence? London: Save the Children.

Elliot Major, L and S Machin (2018) Social Mobility and its Enemies, Penguin.

Elliot Major, L. and Higgins, S. (2019) What Works? Research and Evidence for Successful Teaching, London: Bloomsbury Education.

Elliot Major, L and S Machin (2020) What Do We Know and What Should We Do About Social Mobility? SAGE Publishing

Elliot Major, L., Tyers, M., & Chu, R. (2020). The National Tutoring Service: Levelling-up education’s playing field.

Elliot Major, L, A Eyles, and S Machin (2021) Learning Loss Since Lockdown: Variation Across The Home Nations, Centre for Economic Performance Covid Paper, Number 23.

Tough, P. (2017) Whatever  it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, Mariner Books.

About the author

Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter. He has authored several books including: Social Mobility and Its Enemies; What Works? Research and evidence for successful teaching; and What Do We Know and What Should We Do About Social Mobility? His latest book The Good Parent Educator summarises education research for parents.  He was formerly Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust and is a member of ESRC’s Strategic Advisory Network. He was awarded an OBE in 2019.