Only localism can unlock the skills sector’s true potential

17 Nov 2019, 5:00

With manifestos being furiously written and further and adult education in the spotlight, national policymakers could be missing an important factor in getting sector policy right, says Anna Round

Manifesto authors seeking recommendations for post-compulsory education are not short of material. They might even be forgiven some weariness on hearing about yet another blueprint for reforming the skills system. But they would do well to put the interim report of the Future Ready Skills Commission, published last week, near the top of their reading list.

While many of its themes echo the existing literature – employer engagement, careers guidance, and the need for simplification of the vocational education landscape – these are set alongside some important fresh perspectives.

The most prominent of these is the second call within a week for greater local control of skills provision and funding. The Northern Powerhouse Local Enterprise Partnerships grouping (NP11) also lists this among its “game-changers” in its Manifesto for the North.

In both cases, the vision for localisation goes beyond the relatively limited reach of the adult education budget to encompass “technical education” across the board. Economic development has long been a central rationale for devolution in England, and the stubborn centralisation of one of its essential inputs, human capital formation, looks increasingly odd.

The mayors of metro areas have made extensive use of their “soft” powers to drive developments, building on the effective partnerships formed under city and growth deals. The commission proposes a place-based logic to bring much-needed coherence to skills policy and provision. Labour market trends and opportunities vary considerably between and within regions; greater local control can facilitate agile responses, as well as linking communities and individuals to learning and work.

A localised approach also has the potential to transform employer engagement, effectively positioning businesses as stakeholders in their local economies alongside learners and local government. Effectively managed, it can also resolve the issues that limit engagement by hard-pressed SMEs, and by potential competitors within key sectors.

A localised approach has the potential to transform employer engagement

The report’s broad framing of “employer engagement” encompasses not only input into the design and delivery of provision, but factors such as collaboration to encourage good practice in building learning cultures and improving skills utilisation. This latter has long been neglected in English skills policy.

A major strength of devolution is its capacity to break down policy silos, and this is especially important for skills. The report identifies crucial ways in which skills can be fully integrated with policy on housing, transport and the environment, as well as health, employment and work progression. And it touches on the need for a strong local dimension in the skills element of emerging local industrial strategies.

The interim report is clear that government and employers (with appropriate incentives) must invest in skills to a “sustainable” level and across the workforce. Alongside this, “affordability” for learners is highlighted; the cost of vocational learning should not be a barrier to entry. For people making the “leap of faith” to invest time and resource in vocational training, a localised skills offer and better affordability will help to make it a more attractive and realistic prospect. 

Another key theme is the need for an excellent skills infrastructure, including strong institutions, a skilled and secure workforce, and appropriate facilities for learning, especially advanced and specialised technical provision. Some of the proposed innovations will require new kinds of support; for example, local leadership will need powerful systems of data gathering and skills forecasting on which to base credible decisions about what does and doesn’t get funded.

Other intriguing directions include a boost for “fusion skills”, including “creative thinking, social skills” and entrepreneurship, as well as openness to lifelong learning. The report is explicit that these must be nurtured throughout the skills system, including academic and technical provision, and opportunities for learners with disabilities and others in danger of missing out.

The report is well-timed to influence national policy. Developed through a partnership of stakeholders, including local government, business and civil society, it exemplifies the local collaboration and capacity that will transform effective skills devolution from aspiration to reality.

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