Devolution could transform skills training

14 Jun 18

IPPR North’s Anna Round explains why metro mayors should take on greater responsibility for further education. 

Prime Minister David Cameron has announced a change to public procurement rules that will require Whitehall departments to take offers of apprenticeships into account when awarding large government contracts


Yesterday England’s regional mayors called for further devolution of skills policy, with combined authorities taking on powers well beyond the adult education budget.

This reflects a growing recognition that centralisation isn’t delivering the skills which local economies, and their workforces, need.

It echoes the words of Andy Burnham, mayor for Greater Manchester, who called for further education policy to be devolved and said the Department of Education was the “least cooperative department” for the regions, in a Commons committee earlier this month

Further devolution would allow a strategic and integrated approach, with responsive planning based on local intelligence and priorities, as we argued in our recent report, Skills for the North.

The adult education budget, which next year passes to Greater Manchester and other areas with a Devolution Deal, represents a vital but relatively small element of funding.

Its funds adults to gain the skills they need to enter work or further learning, in particular people who are ‘furthest from learning or the workplace’.

Much of it is spent on statutory entitlements to basic skills courses; this is important, but forms just one part of a complex skills ecosystem.

The AEB on its own offers local areas limited scope to address skills gaps at Levels 3 (A level) to 5 (HND or Foundation Degree).

Compared to other developed nations, the UK has a relatively high proportion of adults whose highest qualification is below (or above) this range.

Yet this ‘squeezed middle’ of skills is where much employer demand currently falls, and is likely to arise in the future.

Regions with AEB devolution will, of course, shape it to incentivise and facilitate progression from basic to intermediate learning.

The use of ‘soft’ and convening powers is a key role of metro mayors, but it’s not enough to address the skills issue.

Mayors need to integrate skills strategically, in line with their wider remit for economic development and increasingly bold ambitions for economic justice and inclusive growth.

Those opposed to further devolution might argue that the last thing further education needs is yet another round of policy change.

The system was described in a 2011 review as “…extraordinarily complex and opaque by European and international standards”, for both students and employers.

It’s also unusually centralised, and a strategic regional approach would bring welcome coherence.

Colleges already work effectively with employers and local government, and FE professionals bring considerable expertise – both in learning and in effective collaboration – to regional skills initiatives, including the work of LEPs.

We found that northern city regions have the capability and the ambition to support effective devolution of adult skills, plus a track record of highly effective practice under the City and Growth Deals.

Despite this, the slow progress of devolution means that local leaders keep on hitting a ‘power glass ceiling’.

And a new approach to adult skills is urgently needed.

Technological change and increasing longevity mean that more and more people must continue to upskill and reskill throughout their careers – or to change careers in middle-age or later.

As digitisation and automation transform the labour market, workers will need to stay connected to opportunities for lifelong learning, and workplace cultures must change to embrace continued engagement with education as the norm rather than the exception.

Devolution of powers for apprenticeships is – as stressed in the mayors’ proposal - a priority.

This is becoming the highest-profile and best-funded area of adult education, and earlier rounds of devolution led to some excellent regional schemes.

Yet alongside other much-discussed challenges associated with the Apprenticeship Levy, it is at odds in several ways with moves towards devolution.

Mayors can reiterate the need for more higher and degree level apprenticeships, but they have few powers to make this happen across their regions.

The priorities of individual employers may not mesh with those that will boost regional economic prospects, and the levers to drive change are not strong enough in the current system.

Short-term reforms could include devolving levy top-up funding and powers to deploy unspent funds, but adult skills policy must become a central part of future Devolution Deals.

A greater regional voice offers other opportunities.

For example, it could enable better skills forecasting and use of data to plan provision, as seen elsewhere in Europe and pioneered in some excellent work within the city regions.

Devolution has the potential to transform skills provision in England, but the new metro mayors need the powers and resources to make that happen.

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