Spanning over 500 pages in total, the “trailblazer” local skills improvement plans – a key plank of the government’s “employers-first” skills reforms – have been published. Shane Chowen takes a look to see if they live up to the hype.
The pros and cons of an “employers-first” skills policy have filled column inches in FE Week since its first publication over ten years ago. Ministers are currently attracted to the narrative because, as a starting point, it means you can, at least in theory, then talk about tangible economic outcomes like jobs, business growth, incomes and productivity.
In today’s policy landscape, the latest manifestation of “employer leadership” in the skills system comes in the form of local skills improvement plans (LSIPs).
LSIPs were first mentioned in the House of Commons by the former education secretary Gavin Williamson on the day that the skills white paper, Jobs for Growth, was published, back in January 2021.
“The white paper is going to put employers firmly at the centre of our local skills systems,” he said. “It will introduce German-style local skills improvement plans, which will be led by business organisations such as local chambers of commerce. Those plans will identify the skills that an area needs and spell out what needs to change to make training more responsive to employers’ needs.”
The white paper itself went further. There will be new accountability structures placed around some further education providers to make sure they’re doing what employers say they want: “To lay on provision that meets the skills needs of the local area, providers need to have a clear articulation of those needs. Many providers do this well independently… but some do not.”
And then a consultation on reforms to FE accountability, which closed six months ago and appears to have stalled, laid out proposals to align multi-year funding agreements to LSIPs, publish how well a provider is delivering against the priorities of the LSIP on a new performance dashboard and an expectation that a college will “reflect” on how it is doing what its LSIP says is needed locally through new accountability agreements.
All of this took place as eight chambers of commerce were chosen to produce trailblazer LSIPs and new primary legislation for LSIPs made its way through parliament.
The eight chambers each get a share of £4 million provided by the Department for Education to develop their trailblazer LSIPs, which were published this week:
- Business West Chamber of Commerce – West of England
- Cumbria Chamber of Commerce – Cumbria
- Doncaster Chamber of Commerce – South Yorkshire
- East Midlands Chamber of Commerce – Leicester and Leicestershire
- Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce – Kent and Medway
- North East England Chamber of Commerce – Tees Valley
- North & Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce – Lancashire
- Sussex Chamber of Commerce – Sussex
What were the trailblazers asked to do?
It’s worth remembering that a form of local leadership over skills is not new. Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) were set up as employer-led bodies to oversee economic development in their areas, including, albeit to a limit degree, skill infrastructure.
We also currently have skills advisory panels (SAPs), linked to LEPs and Mayoral Combined Authorities, which each receive an annual grant from the DfE to analyse labour market data and produce a local skills report. Panels that are in LSIP trailblazer areas were still given their £75,000 grants this year, but had to support the development of the LSIP, rather than publish their own report.
Ministers never really properly explained what it was about the LEP/SAP set-up that still makes LSIPs necessary. In fact, LEPs were specifically excluded from being recognised as employer-representative bodies for the LSIP trailblazers. Yet, they felt it necessary to cough up £4 million for LSIP trailblazers on top of the £2.7 million already provided to the advisory panels.
The risk here was duplication and even more confusion for employers and providers.
The trailblazers, though, are not the finished product. The brief was as much about testing approaches and processes for making the plans as it was about the plans themselves.
When chambers of commerce were asked to bid to become an LSIP trailblazer, they were specifically told that they shouldn’t try to dictate what individual providers should deliver, nor should they set out what could happen if funding was any different.
Despite the latter instruction, but somewhat pleasingly, funding comes up time and time again in the trailblazer LSIPs. They want continued funding for their LSIPs of course, but there are calls from South Yorkshire for fully funded ESOL and repeat level 2s through the adult education budget; Kent and Sussex want to propose funded locally designed non-accredited short courses; and Tees Valley asks for the ability to develop apprenticeship standards for jobs that don’t yet exist.
What has been produced?
The published trailblazer LSIP documents each follow a similar structure; a bit of context about their area, lists of ways that employers have been consulted and commentary on what it is about their local systems that they think needs to change.
Where there are recommendations, there are some common themes which, if you work in or around FE and skills, aren’t particularly new or surprising.
Employers find the skills system too complex, qualifications lag behind advancements in industry, formal courses are too big and time-consuming, tutors aren’t up-to-date, and SMEs feel systematically excluded.
In turn, recommendations such as more bespoke and modular courses, better careers advice services, apprenticeship levy flexibilities and “one-stop-shop” websites aren’t all that ground-breaking.
Lancashire’s LSIP comes in at 134 pages compared to Leicestershire’s 27, yet Leicestershire’s more convincingly satisfied the brief because it produced a sustainable model for business-provider relationships using brand new tools and methods. In its “roadmap for change” it maps out a simple structure for the sort of system leadership DfE should be looking for, with clear lines of accountability at priority sector level informing a strategic oversight board.
Another interesting thing to look at is the approach chambers took to deciding what sectors to focus their LSIPs on.
Most made the decision to take a lead from an existing evidence-base, usually the skills advisory panel, with some prioritisation. West of England chose three sectors (social care, aerospace and advanced manufacturing) to focus their LSIP on, whereas Lancashire chose 11.
Tees Valley dedicated its entire LSIP to its low-carbon and net-zero industry. This is a very different approach to other areas which selected existing established industries in their local economy. The Tees Valley LSIP states: “Studying the skills requirements of the sector at this early stage will provide insights from industry. This will help shape future provision and avoid the problems faced by other industries, such as skills gaps and a drain of talent from the area.”
They are critical of a skills system which, they argue, fails to prepare for future industries. Taking aim at apprenticeships specifically, they say employers can’t form occupational or apprenticeship standards until job roles exist which, they say, doesn’t work for employers in low carbon: “When the predicted jobs finally do come on stream, there is no skills base to fill them because the qualifications haven’t been developed.”
South Yorkshire decided not to name specific sectors at all and instead reported on common issues across its whole labour market; this included the most-detailed look at how the skills system can make the workforce more inclusive. Alongside this, Sussex, Tees Valley and West England observed how access to affordable childcare was a barrier to training.
Not all of these approaches will strictly meet the brief that the DfE laid down; but officials should be supportive of areas having varying outlooks if the whole point of trailblazers really is to see how employers do things differently once they’re given some scope for leadership.
How DfE responds to the recommendations made by employer groups will also be interesting.
Chambers called for some level of modularisation built into the whole skills system because engagement with full qualifications was seen by employers as too costly in terms of time and money.
This was probably the most common recommendation across all LSIPs.
An easy thing for DfE to do in response would be to point to the lifelong loan entitlement, due in 2025. This would miss the mark for employers who, based on most of the LSIPs, say that smaller courses are needed at all levels.
So the LSIP exercise gives us a useful test to see how far DfE will go to really reform the system around employers or, as many suspect, continue to pay lip service.
The LSIPs create a similar challenge for employers.
Another universal theme across the LSIPs is that the exercise itself has “galvanised” employers with a willingness to engage in all sorts of ways – from taking part in regular skills conversations (as in Sussex) to providing more work experience (South Yorkshire) and doing more with providers in curriculum design (Cumbria).
All very welcome – but there is less to say about how to make it happen. The West of England LSIP’s main recommendations are less about whole-system reform and more concerned with capacity within a well-performing system to do things better: “Within the current system, the quality of engagement between industry and skills providers contains many pockets of excellent and innovative practice, but is not systematically meeting either business needs for skills, or skills providers’ needs for clear information and engagement to develop well-functioning and sustainable training provision based on business workforce planning.”
The crucial next step is how DfE chooses to respond to the LSIP trailblazers that it has been presented with. There is some good evidence of new strategic structures and sustainable approaches to the use of data that it could deem to be higher risk, but are at least offering something tangibly different and collaborative.
Some feared that LSIPs would be developed in isolation and that ITPs in particular would be excluded. But there are several examples from the trailblazers where a strong and well-networked ITP base is seen as a strategic asset alongside colleges, schools and universities.
While there are some genuinely creative and refreshing proposals and commitments from the chambers, they will be conscious, and perhaps suspicious about, the DfE’s willingness to give up so much power and control.