West Midlands needs better skills – adult education budget devolution can provide them

17 Mar 2019, 5:00

The adult education budget should be used to help communities that aren’t benefiting from the region’s economic success, says Julie Nugent

The West Midlands is experiencing a renaissance. Civic pride is growing, with Coventry set to be the UK’s city of culture in 2021, and Birmingham hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2022

Our economy is growing too. Across a range of indicators – including GVA, skills and employment levels – the region has welcomed many recent and significant improvements. Investment is increasing, with companies like HS2, Deloitte, HSBC and PwC all choosing to expand in the region.

Unfortunately, too many of our communities are still not participating in this economic success. Currently, the regional average employment rate of 68% is well below the national average (75%)¹, and there are particular challenges for our BAME communities.

Too many of our residents lack skills, particularly at higher levels, with less than a third (30%)¹ qualified to NVQ Level 4 – this in an economy where, by 2024, 42%² of all jobs will be at Level 4 and above.

We need to free up our skills system to respond to these challenges.

In 2017/18, only 6% of the Adult Education Budget (AEB) went towards helping our residents gain Level 3 skills (only 1% of all enrolments).

Our view is that national funding systems have frustrated the further education sector’s ability to respond to regional skills challenges. The causes of this are complex. They include a lack of strategic investment in FE, particularly in capital, cuts in funding and national prioritisation of scarce resource.

The West Midlands needs a different approach.

Last year, we worked with regional partners to establish a shared ambition for skills: more people in employment, more people in higher-skilled jobs and a more agile system.

The devolution of the £126m adult education budget to the West Midlands gives us all an opportunity to achieve this.

But devolution is about much more than money.

For the West Midlands, devolution is a catalyst for new ways of working, symbolised by the creation of the Further Education Skills and Productivity Group (FESPG) – a collective of the 21 colleges delivering across the region.

We are working closely with the region’s colleges and providers

Lowell Williams, chief executive officer of Dudley College, chair of the FESPG, is strongly supportive of the devolution of funding for skills. He sees the group as a mechanism for constructive collaboration, with each other and with the combined authority, and to get behind the regional agenda for growth in productivity, skills and employment.

The FESPG, along with regional representatives from adult and community learning providers and the AELP, has been critical to the development of our regional skills policy.

We know our region needs more technical skills, but we also know that establishing a new technical skills offer for young people and adults is not easy. Our sector needs new models of delivery, new teaching capabilities, and significant investment in facilities and kit.

We are therefore working closely with the region’s colleges and providers to understand and mitigate the risks in developing new provision, helping the sector to rebuild capacity to address our changing economic needs.

We will build on our experience of career learning pilots, with subsidies to support adults in priority Level 3 qualifications, as well as testing sector-led innovations around delivery and fees structures, to develop new provision that can better address current and future economic needs.

The West Midlands will shortly publish its local industrial strategy – where we set out the challenges and opportunities for our continued economic growth. FE is critical to delivering this strategy, and we are asking the government for more investment in our colleges to underpin the robust technical education system that our region requires. We will continue to support the sector’s broader role in engaging and supporting individuals and communities, developing their skills and confidence, and helping them to progress in learning and employment.

The West Midlands has some deeply entrenched skills issues to tackle. But we have a new ambition, a clear sense of purpose and an FE sector that is up for this challenge.

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