There have always been inequality challenges in education but these have been further compounded by the impacts of the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected learning outcomes for children from deprived areas.

The Chancellor’s recent Autumn Budget and Spending Review aimed to address some of these issues, with plans to ‘level up’ the country through targeted funding and the creation of more opportunities for lifelong learning. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the economy is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year, with unemployment rates likely to reach 5.2%, a much more positive prediction than the 12% that was originally forecast last July. The new spending review includes increased funding across most areas of education, with a focus on improving the skills that are needed for the workplace in both the short and long-term. 

Early years

We know that education begins long before a child sets foot in school. In fact, an Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) study found that pre-school and early years home learning environments have a significant impact on students' GCSE attainment and prospects. Any pre-school attendance, compared to none, leads to higher GCSE outcomes. The more months students had spent in pre-school, the greater the impact on total GCSE scores and grades in English and maths.

To support development for young children, especially those from deprived backgrounds, the government has confirmed an additional £160million in funding for early years education for 2022/23, rising to £180million the following year. This is a welcome boost to the sector, which has been heavily impacted by Covid-19 lockdowns and is struggling to close inequality gaps. We’re pleased that both accessibility and education funding are being prioritised, something that will help to ensure that children are able to get the support they need locally. An extra 30,000 places for children with additional learning needs and disabilities will be allocated, offering a vital lifeline for young people who currently face access barriers and find themselves travelling long distances to find suitable schools. As the funding is rolled out, it will be important to ensure that sufficient budget is made available for teaching training. In recent years the number of teachers for deaf children, for example, has fallen by 15%. This must be rectified in order for pupils with additional needs to reach their full potential. 


As schools strive to overcome the challenges the pandemic continues to present, ‘catch up’ programmes remain high on many school leaders’ agendas. We’re pleased to see that schools will be supported not only to help children catch up, but to improve education across the board. The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has stated that England is committing less money to its schools than other comparable nations. To make the best use of the funding available, it will be vital to ensure that it’s being released to the right parts of the system, and that we are able to measure how it’s being spent, as well as the impact it’s having. 

For many children and young people, the tutoring and catch-up programmes introduced to date have focused primarily on academic subjects such as literacy and numeracy. While these skills will support young people to progress through higher education and into employment, the additional £2billion announced for educational recovery should be used to take a wider and more holistic approach to decreasing inequality and gaps in attainment. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to have access to additional learning opportunities such as cultural excursions, music lessons, art therapy and other activities that can enrich both their education and mental wellbeing. In the long-term, this impacts all areas of their learning and development, leading to weaker job prospects. 

Adult education

Digitisation and the ongoing pandemic are rapidly shifting the way we live and work in the UK. And with 80% of the UK’s 2030 workforce already in the world of employment, our future success depends not just on the schooling we give children, but the lifelong learning we offer to adults. That’s why I am pleased to see a focus on apprenticeships and upskilling for adults in the latest spending review. 

The £3,000 apprentice hiring incentive is being extended until January next year, while enhanced recruitment services are being developed for small and medium sized enterprises, which will be in action by May 2022. While I welcome support for these programmes, it’s important to increase flexibility in how they’re able to operate. The majority of apprenticeships require a 12-month commitment, which isn’t possible for everyone. A flexible option has been made available in the digital sector, which allows people to work with more than one employer in different areas. I would like to see a greater variety of flexi-apprenticeships across all companies, to enable more people to take them up. Investment in the new T-level programmes to increase technical skills is also good news, though we need to ensure that a robust strategy is in place to support school leavers while this initiative is being rolled out. This may involve increased focus on BTEC qualifications during the interim period, as well as monitoring the response to T-levels. Meanwhile, I am keen to see commitment to level 1 and 2 training and access courses, which are the gateway for many people to access employment.

For those who have already left school, the £3.8 billion investment into skills will be highly beneficial, leading to a 29% increase in adult funding by 2025. In England alone, more than eight million adults have numeracy skills lower than those expected of a 9-year-old, with the North East, West Midlands and Yorkshire worst affected. By the age of 30, those with poor numeracy skills are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as their peers. At least £560 million has been earmarked in the Chancellor’s budget to increase numeracy and basic mathematical skills for adults through free personal tutoring, digital training, and flexible courses. We believe this will be an important investment to support the levelling up agenda and increase the future opportunities available to people. 

At the same time as improving knowledge around numeracy, skills bootcamps must focus on learner outcomes and avoid knee-jerk reactions to short-term skill gaps. For example, while it’s vital to train more HGV drivers, digital skills should also be a top priority. As historic jobs disappear and new ones take their place, business leaders need to work with the government and local authorities to determine which areas are likely to expand and how employees can be retrained to meet market needs. We hope that Local Skills Improvement Plans can provide this much needed focus on local needs.

Looking to the future

The Spending Review requires employers to consider the ways they can increase diversity and help to tackle inequality through their own recruitment processes and internal initiatives. At Capita, for example, we run a young offenders’ scheme to give training and support to ex-offenders, as well as numerous apprenticeship schemes and recruitment opportunities for those who haven’t come through the university route.

The proposals recognise the need for high-quality vocational skills to support a buoyant economy, in addition to traditional forms of higher education. After a decade of tight budgets the investment will be welcome. New funding on its own won’t go far enough to transform the UK economy for a post-Brexit, post-Covid-19 world, but we remain optimistic.

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