As we contemplate the future of the skills system, let’s think in terms of devolution and localisation, says Ewart Keep

The Skills Commission is currently engaged in an inquiry into the future of the skills system. How do recent policy developments, such as the expansion of the apprenticeship scheme, the devolution of the Adult Education Budget (AEB) and the imminent introduction of T-levels, join up on the ground so that we build a system that responds to local needs and national  priorities?

The theme is a topical one, since combined authorities and some local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) are contemplating how to move away from competition and a fragmented marketplace of delivery towards local systems of education and training (E&T) that encourage collaboration, and perhaps elements of specialisation. For example, the North East LEP has set up an FE Careers Hub shared across all the colleges in its region.

Let’s think in terms of devolution and cooperation

Some are also starting to go one stage further and experiment with the notion of a skills ecosystem. The idea is to link up different policy areas such as economic development, business improvement and support, and efforts to improve job quality and in-work career progression for low-waged workers in order to find solutions to long-standing employment and skills problems.  An example would be efforts to develop new progression pathways for low-paid workers and support these through new packages of training. So what stands in the way of these developments?

The first and most obvious barrier is the flow of public funding, which sees resources largely following individual student choice via various ESFA tendering processes or via employer choice in the apprenticeship marketplace. This set-up stokes competition between providers to obtain students, a process which it is assumed will drive improved performance but also creates fragmented markets. Some combined authorities which are commissioning the devolved AEB are experimenting with a more cooperative and unified systems-led approach –  perhaps supported via some kind of block grant funding to providers.

Moreover, in some localities, FE and other E&T providers have chosen to work together and organise collectively rather than compete. The UK Innovation Corridor’s Regional Skills Concordat, for example, sees a group of colleges around Peterborough and Cambridgeshire working across local authority and LEP boundaries to map skill needs and build shared programmes that can aggregate skill demand and supply across institutions. They are generally acting despite of, not because of, nationally established incentives. 

A second set of problems is caused by the government’s tendency to draw up place-blind, one-size-fits-all national programmes without involving localities or providers in the design. The lack of input on the ground means that too often national priorities disrupt local priorities and relationships, yet ministers expect these solutions to be adopted whether localities want or need them. 

Changing the nature of dialogue with central government departments is a major objective for some of the combined authorities, LEPs, colleges and their representatives. They want to see national policy capable of being tailored to meet local circumstances and to have a more equal relationship with Whitehall, replacing the existing master-servant model. Given the culture of Whitehall and the constant turnover in civil servants as they move posts, this challenge is likely to take time.

A final problem is time: national and local politicians work on very short time-scales and want quick wins. There is the risk, for example, that central government may attempt to judge the results of the devolution of the AEB too swiftly, with the danger that transitional arrangements are given too little time to bear fruit. This danger is all the greater given that the devolved AEB is a relatively small pot of money that has to be stretched across a wide range of competing demands.

Devolution and localisation really matter.  Outside of city states, such as Singapore, there are almost no successful national E&T systems that do not incorporate a greater degree of local accountability, innovation and control than England.  We need to learn to make localism work for everyone.