Within the next couple of weeks, we expect the Skills Funding Agency to finally begin the process of European Social Fund procurement, advised by European Structural Investment Funds (ESIF) committees within Local Enterprise Partnerships (Leps).
This will be the first time Leps will have influence over where and how public money is spent on learning and skills programmes.
Yet, with devolution all the rage, this is just the beginning of stronger local oversight over economic growth and public service reform. Since Lord Heseltine’s ‘No Stone Unturned’ report just over three years ago, devolution agreements have been made between central government and nine local areas.
From Cornwall to West Yorkshire, Liverpool to Tees Valley, more and more city regions and combined authority will be afforded devolved budgets and decision making powers over health, social care, transport, employment and skills.
The strengths, opportunities and potential benefits of devolved education and skills systems are persuasive. Skills is a good example of how England stands out as the European Capital of centralised skills policy.
As a democracy, we are facing up to the realisation that central government can’t solve all of the problems. Programmes from Whitehall can’t close skills gaps, they can’t eliminate lifetime low pay and they are not making progress in getting those furthest away from the labour market into work.
That’s why it is welcome that local areas have been promised co-commissioning roles for new employment support programmes.
Yet, I remain restless about a couple of things in particular when it comes to devolution of skills.
My first one is about political leadership. In return for powers, local areas have to commit to electing a ‘metro-mayor’. Working with the mayor will be a combined authority with its own cabinet of local authority leaders and its own executive. Combined authorities are networks of local authorities, each of which will have its own executive and cabinet of elected councillors.
The quality of local outcome agreements, skills and employment strategies etc rest on the quality of leadership, policy and oversight from councillors.
My real worry here is how much freedom local political leaders will actually be given to direct policy in their area. It’s all well and good devolving power and responsibility, but if it’s in HM Treasury wrapping paper with a massive un-Christmassy list of government policy requirements, then its not really devolution at all. So I think the quality, and freedom, of local political leaders are really important.
Following any discussion about political leadership usually comes accountability.
While the government’s consultation on outcome based success measures only closed last week, I know that many are concerned about this idea of a trade-off between accredited and employment outcomes verses non-accredited and other types of outcomes.
There’s potential for an ‘accountability paradox’ here for local political leaders in that if devolution only provides proportioned central government budgets, rather then actual power, local political leaders could find themselves satisfying their devolution conditions at the expense their constituents.
My hope though, is that in areas like Greater Manchester, local people feel a genuine sense of ownership over learning and skills and local politicians have the ability to prioritise those in most need in their communities.
Clearly, the devolution agenda at the moment throws up as many questions as it does theoretical benefits.
We know that it’s most likely at this stage that adult skills and community learning budgets are likely to be devolved under a combined umbrella package.
With that would also come learner support funding, but we don’t know the extent to which local areas will have powers of learner support policy or just the PIN number for the central government budget.
Now that learning loans are to be extended, it’ll be interesting to see what ideas local areas have in flexing local learning markets to boost demand for advanced-higher level learning and, again, whether localities will have powers over eligibility policy.