Skills devolution: Five ways to ensure communities are in the driving seat

A new report by LTE Group makes five recommendations to ease the tension at the heart of skills devolution

A new report by LTE Group makes five recommendations to ease the tension at the heart of skills devolution

13 Dec 2023, 5:00

As the biggest single capital project in the history of the FE sector, it should be no surprise that The Manchester College’s stunning new City Campus has attracted a steady stream of visitors since it opened.

In October, hundreds of the UK’s most talented young apprentices in fields such as digital construction, cyber security and culinary arts gathered for the WorldSkills UK national finals, taking place in the city for the first time.

Seven months before this, the campus hosted Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, and national levelling up minister, Dehenna Davison for the signing of the City Region’s trailblazer devolution deal. As Mr Burnham told guests: “[We] have achieved a significant breakthrough by gaining greater control over post-16 technical education, setting us firmly on the path to become the UK’s first technical education city region.”

If the UK is to achieve its ambition of building a high-skill, high-wage economy, these two events show us what we need to achieve – international standards of excellence in technical education – and how to achieve it – through skills devolution.

In the autumn statement, chancellor, Jeremy Hunt announced plans for four new deals which will result in some 57 per cent of England’s population living under devolution by 2025. Labour, too, has pledged to offer further powers to current and future combined authorities, with Sir Keir Starmer vowing to “give power back and put communities in control”.

In our own back yard, LTE Group is proud to be at the forefront of Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s exciting plans to develop the country’s first fully integrated technical education system. And as a national group of skills providers operating across England and Wales, we have a unique insight into the differences in how skills policy operates under different combined authorities.

A new report by the LTE Group centre for policy and research, which draws on insight and intelligence from across the group to support and shape the development of innovative education, skills and employment policy, offers five recommendations for how devolution and skills policy should evolve to enable colleges and providers to flourish.

1. Prioritise commissioning, not control

A framework to bring commissioners together in a coordinated way, while retaining colleges’ autonomy to balance the demands of national and regional funders as well as their own stakeholders, would enable colleges to flourish as anchor institutions at the heart of their communities.

2. Facilitate coordinated post-16 capacity planning

In each combined authority region, a strategic capacity planning process that brings together FE providers, schools and national and regional commissioners should take place annually to ensure two key objectives are met: that capacity can meet current and future demand, and that no student misses out on a post-16 place whether they wish to pursue an academic or technical pathway.

3. Ensure funding stability while enabling innovation

Guaranteed inflation-based annual funding uplifts for all apprenticeships and AEB-funded provision, alongside the protection of combined authorities’ ability to adapt their own funding rates and rules to respond to regional need, would provide a sustainable framework for high-quality provision.

4. Guarantee fair, sustainable pay

Colleges, representative bodies and unions should form a working group to develop a new approach to pay and conditions to allow the sector to attract the high-skilled professional specialists it needs. The next government should commit to closing the gap in average teacher pay between schools and colleges within five years.

5. Ensure the employer-led system takes a broader view

As well as exploring growth areas and skills gaps, LSIPs should draw on a broader range of evidence when making recommendations for future skills provision. This should include migration trends, physical and mental health in the wider community and the need to address in-work poverty and support over-50s back into the workforce.

The tension lying behind the devolution process is the need to allow combined authorities to innovate and respond to their own unique economic circumstances, while ensuring that no parts of the country are left behind as a result of the atomisation of skills policy. I hope this report offers a blueprint how the next government can strike this balance.

The full report, Skills devolution: Putting communities in control? is available here

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