Three reflections on the West Midlands’ new skills deal

How the West Midlands can make the most of the deal – and the implications for other major cities

Earlier this week, the Government announced a new skills deal for the West Midlands Combined Authority, unlocking up to £69 million to boost productivity and jobs opportunities in the region.

The new deal includes a number of education and skills initiatives spanning from improving apprenticeships in small businesses, investing in local colleges and boosting adult education, to improving careers advice and business-schools collaborations.

The deal is good news for the combined authority, especially in light of the skills challenges it faces. As our research shows, the West Midlands – and Birmingham in particular – perform worse than the national average in terms of education and skills and this has an impact on the economic performance of the city region.

For example, Birmingham has the highest share of population with no qualification of any UK city, and that it punches below its weight in terms of high-skilled population. Not surprisingly, improving the skills of the workforce is a priority for the combined authority, and this skills deal gives them the opportunity to just do that.

Here are three reflections on how local leaders in the West Midlands can make the most of the new initiative – and the implications for other major cities:

  1. Integrating the deal with existing skills initiatives and Adult Education Budget devolution will be critical

One of the main challenges raised at our skills roundtable in Birmingham earlier this year is the lack of coordination between existing initiatives in the city. In particular, there has been a lack of comprehensive knowledge of existing education programmes in place across the city, meaning that new schemes often overlap with those already in place.

The combined authority should therefore ensure that the new skills deal is coordinated alongside existing initiatives, to complement and support what is already on offer. Similarly, the new deal should be used coherently with the Adult Education Budget, when it is devolved in 2019/20 ,as the two programmes cover similar areas and share the same goal. This would help maximise the use of resources available.

  1. An opportunity to understand what works in the education space – both in the West Midlands and beyond

The deal includes piloting the National Retraining Scheme to drive adult learning and retraining, and a new online portal for businesses to share work experience opportunities with schools. Furthermore, the combined authority has the opportunity to experiment around apprenticeships and local colleges offer.

Making sure that these initiatives have a proper evaluation framework since the beginning can help maximise their effect. Firstly, evaluation will help the combined authority identify what is not working early on, allowing for the projects to be adjusted accordingly and avoiding waste of precious resources. Secondly, evaluating these initiatives would give us a better understanding of what works in this space, and consequently apply the findings to the rest of the country.

  1. The Department for Education should extend deals to other mayoral city regions

Since being elected last year, the metro mayors have been continuously lobbying for more powers over education and skills, only to receive a cold shoulder from the Government. After months of tensions, this deal could signal a change in route from the devo-reluctant Department for Education (DfE).

Media coverage of the agreement has suggested that the door is open for other combined authorities to enter negotiations with the DfE on similar deals – the Government should turn these rumours into a reality. Given the central role skills play in the delivery of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, now more than ever the Department of Education should collaborate with other departments and local authorities to make sure every place has the tools they need to address their challenges.

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