Sheffield City Region recently signed a devolution agreement that included skills funding. Heather Smith discusses the implications.

Those of us who lead colleges often talk about distributed leadership — how to get the best from our staff and for our students to secure discretionary effort, improve quality and increase efficiency.

Indeed, to get the ownership and accountability described by so many management experts as the key to the most productive and positive work environments.

We therefore welcome a similar approach from central government and an increase in the localism agenda.

The Sheffield City Region Agreement on Devolution reflects this momentum.

The devolution agreement for Sheffield City Region does not have, as the deal for Greater Manchester does, the requirement for an elected mayor. However, there are a number of similarities such as a promise to join up the future activity of the Department for Work and Pensions with the particular needs of the regional economy around employment, including the local design of the Work Programme. It also promises a more flexible and responsive business support system in which the Local Enterprise Partnership (Lep) will have more power to meet the needs of local businesses with new, direct support from the UKTI to encourage increased export activity.

There is a commitment as well to work more closely on transport and housing, with the possibility of further devolution down the line around public services.

All of this is encouraging and gives hope that the region can do even more to tackle the issues it faces.

Our assumption that we are part of the solution will be tested when the adult skills budget is no longer automatically given to us in 2017

The most significant lever offered by the Sheffield City Region deal in this respect is that of the devolution of the adult skills budget. The Lep and combined authority will form a joint venture partnership with the Skills Funding Agency which will be responsible for re-commissioning provision. This is to provide an integrated skills and training system across the local area, driven by the needs of the economy and led by the private sector, giving local businesses the skilled labour they need to grow.

At The Sheffield College we have long recognised the need to orientate ourselves and our core purpose to the needs of the local economy.

According to Economic Modelling Specialists International (EMSI) research, we have a £321m economic impact on the city every year and are determined to increase that. Changing our curriculum to be demand-led has been a journey we have been undertaking, developing partnerships with employers. This doesn’t happen overnight, as the intelligence needs to be gathered and interpreted, reputation consolidated and responsiveness evidenced.

Getting the whole organisation behind that shift in thinking, to become more demand-led and outcome-driven, requires thinking differently and a culture change.

Investment is key as well, and is reflected in the two new build projects we are currently completing — in the technology, engineering and design areas and the other for the creative industries, which have been identified as Lep priorities for growth.

While we feel strategically-aligned with the localism approach, and proud of the work we have already been doing in this area to address regional skills shortages, we also recognise that our assumption that we are part of the solution will be tested when the adult skills budget is no longer automatically given to us in 2017.

We have developed a combined response with other FE colleges in the region, to capitalise on all our collective expertise in the development of adult skills.

The gain to be made from working together is much greater than the loss that could result from a fragmented response from FE.

Another challenge is that we will need a commissioning process which enables this to happen — something that needs working through. It’s a new test for FE and one that will no doubt be replicated around the country once the early adopters of devolution find their feet.

The direction of travel is right; the premise behind the devolution deal is good. Our challenge is to ensure that we are seen to be an indispensable part of the localism skills solution.