Devolution needs to be re-configured to nurture thriving local skills systems and confident and capable communities, writes Charlotte Morgan

Yesterday’s spending review saw what seemed like significant sums handed to employment and skills initiatives, with the Restart Programme, Plan for Jobs, Lifetime Skills Guarantee and even an employer-led bootcamp all getting investment.

But as well as their snappy names, what all these schemes have in common is that they are devised and led by national government, rather than by the places and communities they are meant to benefit.

It was the chancellor himself who in September promised “creative” and “bold” solutions to protect jobs during the Covid-19 crisis, while the prime minister announced that there would be “radical change” in national skills policy.

But there is nothing creative, bold or radical about change if skills policy continues to be dictated by the centre.

No two places in England have the same make-up of sectors, available job opportunities and current and future skills needs. In the face of immense challenges, such as the Covid-19 crisis, workplace automation, a new post-Brexit immigration policy and climate change, the best way to address changing labour market requirements is to align autonomy over skills decision-making, commissioning and delivery as closely as possible to place-level variation.

In our conversations with people working in England’s post-16 skills sector over the last three years, we at New Local have heard very similar messages about the problems caused by over-centralisation of skills policy-making and resources.

Whether they work for local authorities, colleges or business groups, people highlight that:

  • Skills policy volatility in central government causes confusion for local delivery organisations.
  • Policy and financial frameworks incentivise competition rather than collaboration between skills partners at place level.
  • Local skills systems are too complex and fragmented for learners and employers to navigate with confidence and contribute to decision-making.

In short, the skills sector is piecemeal, institutionalised and bureaucratic. And this is holding it back from offering the best outcomes for either learners or employers.

A fundamental change in England’s approach to skills devolution is needed to change this for the better. Not a few tweaks to the existing model of English devolution, not an extra devolved budget or two – but an overhaul.

In New Local’s new report, No Strings Attached: How community-led devolution would transform England’s skills sector, we propose further skills devolution under a different modus operandi: community-led skills devolution.

One of the core principles of this is that the transfer of powers and budgets should be determined by subsidiarity – the principle that decisions should only be made centrally when they cannot be made locally. That would mean comprehensive skills devolution of powers and resources affecting 16 to 19 education, careers advice, retraining, and employment and skills support for people with complex needs. Meanwhile, central government would retain some oversight over areas like forming and enforcing national policy frameworks and baseline standards.

Under the community-led approach, decisions would be made ‘horizontally’ across a place through local partnerships including local authorities, LEPs, colleges and universities.

We are calling for local partnerships for three reasons. First, they ensure that further skills devolution does not create new ‘local centres’ where power is held by the local authority rather than shared across the local skills system. Second, it is a more flexible governance model that enables places outside large city regions to access skills devolution. Third, it provides a platform for policy and financial frameworks that incentivise collaboration rather than competition.

One such financial framework would be place-based skills budgets. Pooling funding streams for devolved responsibilities into a ‘single pot’ place-based budget would incentivise whole-systems and preventative approaches as the risks of investment and the rewards of savings are contained within one budget. Some locally agreed ringfencing would give partners confidence that the money they need to deliver programmes will not be redirected to competing priorities, but a significant tranche of the single pot would be non-ringfenced. If partners across a place achieve outcomes in one stream, they would be able to keep and reinvest the extra funding in their area rather than watch it trickle upwards towards the Treasury.

Power is not about control, but strength. Devolving power distributes strength across the system. With immense challenges coming at us from all angles, local skills systems need the strength to stand firm and resilient. We can overcome these challenges, and lay the foundations for future prosperity, if devolution is re-configured to nurture thriving local skills systems and confident and capable communities. 

New Local is an independent think tank but is owned by its members of around 60 councils. Its report No Strings Attached report was supported by Further Education Trust in Learning (FELT) and is available here.