Local elections: What mayoral hopefuls have to say on skills

Elections are set to take place on May 2

Elections are set to take place on May 2

Labour’s mayoral candidate for the West Midlands has claimed he has placed skills and adult education at the centre of his campaign, while others have chosen to focus on other policy areas in the build-up to local elections.

Richard Parker, who is hoping to win sitting Tory metro-mayor Andy Street’s job, says his “absolute priority” is creating “new jobs and training opportunities” in every town in the region.

His manifesto, due to be published today, ambitiously promises to “guarantee” an apprenticeship place for every young person who wants one.

Apprenticeship statistics for the West Midlands show that in 2022/23, only 22 per cent of apprenticeship starters were under the age of 19.

Speaking to FE Week ahead of the election, Parker – who left school at 16 before returning to education to gain an economics degree – said he understands the importance of education.

But aside from his apprenticeship guarantee – which lacked detail explaining how this would be possible – his campaign contained no other specific pledges on adult skills.

When pressed, Parker would only say that he would invest the West Midlands’ £150 million adult skills budget in “proper skills for people to get proper jobs”.

While Parker places jobs and training at the top of his list, the manifestos of many other candidates, including his rival Street, emphasise other key policies under mayoral control such as transport and housing.

Adult skills spending is one of the key policy areas under the direct control of the ten combined authorities planning to elect a new metro mayor on May 2.

Parker claimed Street has been “passive on skills” and commissioning training courses on using “Excel spreadsheets” to hit government targets.

Street was unable to speak to FE Week, but his 149-page manifesto published yesterday pledges to take a “proactive approach” to getting young people into apprenticeships, continue focusing on technical skills and to “tailor” skills funding to local businesses’ needs.

His record includes overseeing the development of the “best qualified workforce in the West Midlands ever”, the manifesto claims.

Some candidates barely mention adult education

Sadiq Khan, who hopes to continue running London’s £320 million adult skills budget, does not mention skills or training in his top ten manifesto pledges.

However, he promises to continue his existing policy to provide free training to anyone 19 years and over who is unemployed, on a low income, or has limited formal education.

His Conservative rival Susan Hall has not mentioned skills in her campaign materials and did not respond to requests for comment from FE Week.

Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, the only other sitting Conservative mayor apart from Street, has released a “plan for local jobs” that makes only passing reference to skills.

Sitting Mayor for Greater Manchester Andy Burnham is yet to reveal any pledges on skills other than the Greater Manchester baccalaureate, an educational pathway for 14-16 year-olds that would promote technical careers.

Incumbent mayors underline value of skills

Speaking to FE Week about their pledges on skills, incumbent Labour mayor for Liverpool City Region Steve Rotheram and independent candidate for North East Jamie Driscoll were both keen to emphasise the importance of their adult skills budget.

Rotheram, who started his working life as an apprentice bricklayer, said: “Skills is the building block that will allow us to attract the investment skills is the important thing.

“Skills is massively important – if we get skills right, we can improve productivity.”

He added that managing the adult skills budget during his seven-year tenure has felt “quite constrained” and pledged to fight for more spending flexibility in a devolution deal similar to Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.

Driscoll argued that since he has run the North of Tyne’s adult skills budget he has increased training enrolments by a “phenomenal” 60 per cent and given training providers more security through three-year settlements.

He pledged to continue taking a “learner-centred approach” to adult skills, with a focus on “getting people something meaningful in their lives”.

He added: “Now, if you’re starting with someone who’s barely literate, then actually that is a huge opportunity.

“But if you’re saying to people in central government style ‘you must go on a course because we effectively want to punish you out of unemployment’ that’s just a waste of everybody’s time.

“Why don’t we get people doing something that’s going to get them out? Some kind of benefit, because we all get repaid by that in the end.”

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