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Skills, skills, skills. Most of the time, the answer to places’ questions about how to improve their economies and the lives of people who live there is: skills.
How do we become more attractive to high-skilled productive businesses? Improve your skills base. How do we promote inclusive growth? Make sure everyone is equipped with the skills they need to succeed in the labour market.
Skills play such a vital role in determining people’ and places’ outcomes that it is unimaginable for places to design successful economic strategies without mentioning education.
But what do local leaders’ think about skills policies? Are they of the same view? And what are their needs and priorities?
The UK City Leaders’ Survey asked these and other questions to city leaders up and down the country. Here are three reflections on the survey’s results in relation to skills policy:
Unprompted, city leaders identified skills as one of their top priorities, together with housing and transport. Skills also featured as a top priority for city leaders in their inclusive growth agenda: indeed, just over two-thirds of respondents chose either adult education or under 18s education or both as areas to improve to achieve inclusive growth.
These findings are encouraging, especially in the context of the changing world of work. As one in five jobs in urban Britain is at high risk of displacement, focusing on skills is imperative to ensure young people are prepared for the labour market and that those already in the workforce are adequately supported to adapt to changes. These interventions are particularly important if we want to close the productivity gap across the country and make sure that all cities and their people can benefit from the opportunities technology will bring us.
When asked which public services they find most challenging to deliver, local leaders overwhelmingly pointed towards health and social care provision (97%), followed by housing (35%). Only three per cent of respondents indicated adult education as a challenge. Similarly, when asked about where they would like to see additional funding with the upcoming Spending Review, leaders indicated similar priorities.
However, that adult education does not feature among the services most under pressure says more about the pressures to which other services are exposed than about the importance of adult education. Social care is such an urgent and pressing issue so it is understandable that it is at the front of minds.
Adult education is a less immediate issue, but its funding pressures will need to be addressed if we want to tackle the existing socio-economic divides we see across the country. Funding for adult education has been slashed over recent years, and is now 32 per cent lower than it was in 2010/11. This is a big problem for struggling places where people don’t have the skills needed to get on in the world of work. Ensuring people have the skills to adapt to the changing labour market requires investment and this should be reflected in the upcoming Spending Review.
When asked which policy areas they would like to see devolved, local leaders went wild, showing great appetite for all available policy options. In terms of education and skills, 65 per cent of leaders would like more control over apprenticeships and in-work training, 38 per cent on schools and early years and 38 per cent on further and higher education.
It is fantastic to see so much enthusiasm from local leaders, especially in the context of national politics preoccupied by Brexit. However, precisely because of this, local leaders cannot wait for the Government to take action.
As we highlighted earlier this year, local leaders can make a difference in the education arena now, with the tools they already have. Local leaders can promote collaborative work in the city, bringing together education providers, businesses and other local stakeholders to identify ways to improve quality and take-up of education provision at all levels, from the early years through to schools and adult learning. This collaboration would help reduce duplications in the existing system, make the most of scale and support places to experiment with new initiatives and evaluate them.
This would help cities send a clear signal to the central government: not only are they willing to take on more responsibilities, they also have a clear plan of what the challenges and priorities for skills policies in their area are and are already working to address them.
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