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Devolve or not to devolve, that is the question. But while civil servants at the Department for Education and city leaders across England debate about who should have powers over education and skills, our recent report flagged that urgent action is needed to make sure people have the ‘robot-ready’ skills they need to succeed in the labour market.
Regardless of what the Education department eventually gives them, cities are in a great position to make a big difference in improving educational outcomes in their areas using the tools they already have. Cities and local stakeholders know the importance of quality education that is taken up by those who need it, and there are already a lot of good initiatives taking place around the country. However, what is often missing is coordination, meaning that the education provision at the local level is less efficient than it could be.
Setting up a Skills Compact would give each city the opportunity to improve on existing work, by gathering momentum around and championing change on education provision in their localities. City leaders could use their soft powers to play a convening role bringing together local policy-makers, education providers and businesses to drive up take-up and quality of education provision. This would draw attention to the skills issues places face and spark concerted action among local partners.
Skills Compacts do not require an overhaul of the existing system yet they have big potential for change. In particular, a Skills Compact would support places to:
By bringing together local partners, Skills Compacts can ensure better coordination of existing initiatives. Each Compact could gather intelligence on the most important skills issues each city is facing and map existing initiatives already in place. This knowledge would then allow places to reduce duplication, promote collaborative working and reduce fragmentation.
Better knowledge of the challenges and resources available in a local area would increase their ability to identify and plug gaps in provision, transition to more efficient systems and directly involve employers in training design.
By working together, local partners can also experiment to find the most cost-effective ways to improve take-up and provision of education in their local area, either by introducing small amendments to the design of existing initiatives or by piloting new projects altogether.
Skills Compacts can use the existing evidence to incorporate and test new design features that have proved to work in other situations. For example, if the barrier to improving economic growth lies in Early Years education, places might want to look at the EasyPeasy project – an initiative to improve outcomes for young children through parental engagement – along with other projects reviewed and positively evaluated by the Education Endowment Foundation and already running in a number of local authorities.
They can also work together to increase the body of the existing evidence of what works. The Skills Compacts offer a great opportunity to convene local expertise to pilot new approaches to improve the delivery and quality of education and skills provision. For example, one of the challenges related to the take-up of adult education is the challenge of juggling training with work and personal commitments. Skills Compacts might want to consider how this challenge plays out in their local areas and adapt training provision accordingly, by introducing different methods of provision – such as evening classes or weekend classes – to understand what works more efficiently for them.
Skills Compacts also offer the opportunity to learn and share best practice both within and between cities, maximising the impact of experimentation.
With concerted action from the start, partners can come together to identify clear objectives for any new initiative, define what constitutes success (and failure) and decide how to measure, monitor and evaluate it. The What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth offers support to cities and organisations on how to embed evaluation from the start. This would allow cities to have a clear understanding of what works – and what doesn’t – for them and means that they can share learning with other places that have similar challenges too. If plans and results of new pilots are shared properly, no experiment – not even the failed ones – will ever be a complete failure.
A lot needs to be done to improve educational outcomes across the country and while Skills Compacts can have a positive impact, the Department for Education should not leave cities alone. As such, it should work collaboratively with cities who have established a Skills Compact and match those efforts locally with increased flexibility for cities to experiment and tailor provision. Only by working together, will we be able to ensure people and places are ‘robot-ready’.