Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham, and previously served as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2019-20).
In July 2019, the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street promising to “level up across Britain”. In short, his mission was to boost economic performance across the UK, with a particular focus on “left behind” areas, often outside of London and the South East.
As an MP in the South East, it is often assumed that I represent an affluent area that requires no extra help from government. However, this simply isn’t the case. Medway, the unitary authority for my constituency of Gillingham and Rainham, is in the top 22 per cent of the most deprived areas for education in England and in the top 10 per cent of most deprived areas with regards to crime.
Within Gillingham and Rainham itself there are stark differences. In Rainham Central, 6.1 per cent of children were recorded as living in poverty in 2018-19. Just a couple of miles away in Gillingham North, this figure is 39.3 per cent.
If the Government truly wants to level up the entire United Kingdom, it must not just focus on the areas traditionally seen as “left behind”. Good quality education for all must be the core component of our levelling up agenda, within an aspirational Conservative approach.
The phrase levelling up means different things to different people. To me, it represents opportunity. I came to this country at the age of six without being able to speak a word of English. I attended a failing secondary high school and a grammar school, and as I came from a modest background, I had to balance my A-Level studies with a part-time job, like many students do across the country.
I was the first in my family to go to university, where I read Law and subsequently qualified as a barrister at age 24, prior to being elected as a Conservative MP at 31.
In our great country, you should be able to be whatever you want through hard work, perseverance, and determination. We in politics must ensure the UK is a land of opportunity for all, where children have access to the finest possible education and can have the best opportunities in life.
As a product of grammar schools, I know the transformational impact these can have on students. From the age of 16 to 18, I attended Rainham Mark Grammar School and the Chatham Grammar School for Girls mixed sixth form. To those from modest backgrounds, a grammar school offers another opportunity to realise their full academic potential. This is true for children who already have good grades, but also for those who have not distinguished themselves academically.
In fact, Department for Education data shows that grammar schools improve educational results among all pupils, especially those who previously struggled and had low attainment. An astounding 93 per cent of pupils in grammar schools achieve a good “pass” in English and Maths at GCSE, more than double the average for state secondaries.
Not surprisingly, grammar schools are extremely popular, with two-thirds of schools at or over capacity as of 2019 – more than four times the average of state funded secondaries.
Levelling up starts with education, and I believe that a key part of this agenda must be to allow the creation of new grammar schools and expansion of existing ones across the country.
Making university accessible and fair for everyone will also play a vital role in levelling up the country. As the first in my family to go to university, I know just how important it is that everyone has the opportunity to do so. The previous Labour government’s target of 50 per cent of the population to go to university was misguided.
However, we must ensure that everyone who wants to go to university is able to do so regardless of financial means. At the same time, the abilities of all young people must be realised, whether that’s through university, or vocational qualifications and high-level apprenticeships in fields like hydrogen energy, as offered in my constituency. The increase in tuition fees last decade has not deterred people from applying to university. However, pupils from wealthier backgrounds are still more likely to go to university than those from poorer backgrounds.
While the average debt of those who graduated in 2019 was £40,000, most students are not expected to pay back their full student loan. Therefore, any reforms to higher education funding must be targeted and help those most in need. Simply lowering tuition fees or reducing interest rates across the board would in fact help the highest earning graduates the most.
Instead, the Government should look to reintroduce maintenance grants of up to £5,000 per year for those from low income backgrounds, with the amount awarded based on the family income of the student, so the lower the family income of the student, the more they would receive.
Having spoken with local university leaders, including Professor Jane Harrington, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Greenwich (which has a campus in Medway), the reintroduction of maintenance grants would provide vital financial security to low income students. It would allow them to focus further on their studies, rather than the part-time jobs that they currently must take to support themselves financially. This is especially important now considering the disruption to their learning that students have faced during Covid-19.
If we look at the Turing Scheme, for example, disadvantaged students can receive up to £490 per month in grants to support their costs when they study abroad. Over twelve months, this would amount to £5,880 in grants. If disadvantaged students can receive grants to help with costs studying abroad, it is only right that they are able to receive them when they study here in the UK.
If we use £5,000 as an average figure of the grant, this reform would reduce debt on those students after a three-year degree by around £15,000. Rewarding hard work is exactly what we as Conservatives should stand for.
Improving and widening access to foreign languages will help the UK level up, while at the same time promoting the Global Britain agenda. I believe that everyone in this country should learn at least one foreign language as a child. This principle was recognised by the Government in 2011 with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, a mandatory component of which is a foreign language.
At the moment, we are unfortunately still far from reaching that ambition: only 32 per cent of young people in the UK say they can read and write in more than one language, compared with 91 per cent in Germany and 80 per cent across the EU.
And, the situation is not improving; the number of pupils taking a language diminishes year-on-year. As a 2015 report from Cambridge University makes clear, this is no small issue: a lack of language skills not only threatens UK companies’ competitiveness abroad, but limits the UK’s soft power on the international stage.
With the introduction of T-Levels, now would be a brilliant time to integrate language learning into vocational and technical qualifications, ensuring more of our young people, regardless of their academic pathway and achievement, learn at least one other language.
In an increasingly digital economy, levelling up education also means giving all our young people technical skills that will allow them to participate and thrive in a digital world. Over the last year, we saw just how reliant we are on technology, which enabled many people to work from home during the pandemic. Now more than ever, it is critical that students are equipped with appropriate IT and coding skills, with a focus on new technologies such as artificial intelligence.
The Government has already taken major steps towards this, with the introduction of computing as a subject at all levels of schooling up to Key Stage 3, teaching children essential skills in computer science and coding.
However, much remains to be done as the number of pupils taking computing or ICT at GCSE level has been declining over the past five years, while a worrying gender gap has opened up, with only 21.4 per cent of GCSE computing entries are from women and girls. The problem is an urgent one: research by McKinsey & Company shows that by 2030, two thirds of the UK workforce (21 million people) could be lacking in basic digital skills, severely damaging UK business competitiveness.
We must look to expand the number of pupils that learn essential IT skills and coding, taking inspiration from successful international examples, from Estonia to Arkansas. As Asa Hutchinson, the Governor of Arkansas, put it: “Whether you’re looking at manufacturing and the use of robotics or the knowledge industries, they need computer programmers… If we can’t produce those workers, we’re not going to be able to attract and keep the industry we want.”
Alongside improving IT skills, equipping students with stronger critical thinking skills is key to allowing them to adapt to the challenging world we live in. Having seen the dangers that disinformation and misinformation can pose when intentionally spread by individuals, organisations or hostile states, as happened with the storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021 or with misleading claims about the Covid-19 vaccination, it is vital that young people are equipped to spot false information online.
Finland, for example, has integrated information literacy and critical thinking across its national curriculum. The result has been that Finland is ranked first out of 35 European countries in its ability to resist fake news (the UK is currently ranked 10th).
At the moment, our schools already teach British values to help prevent radicalisation and extremism. However, countering the spread of dangerous disinformation and misinformation is one of the next big challenges that we as a country face to protect against social disorder which could also undermine our democratic institutions. It is vital that we teach these skills early in schools so that young people can help stop the spread of false information.
If we are to truly level up across the country, education must be at the centre of the Government’s strategy and areas like the South East and Medway must be taken into account. Prior to 2010, all three Medway constituencies were represented by Labour MPs. Since then, we have secured sizeable majorities. If the Conservatives are to continue representing areas such as this, the Government cannot forget them. We must not level down the South East in pursuit of levelling up other areas of the country.
With the Queen’s Speech next month and as we emerge from Covid-19 restrictions, now is the time for a bold agenda from Government which levels up the entire country and equips young people with the necessary tools to face the modern challenges in the world. Improving education is a vital part of this, whether through reforming student finance, expanding grammar schools, improving foreign language teaching, or a greater emphasis on critical thinking and IT skills in schools to help counter disinformation and misinformation.