To take it to the next level, empower regions to invest in skills and education

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The release last week of Upgrade White Paper one thing very clear: new thinking about skills and education is at the heart of the UK government’s flagship plan for regional regeneration.

There is plenty to rent. Many of the White Paper’s flagship policies — some new, some revitalized — promise to change the education landscape across the country. Education Investment Zones will help target school investments to the most disadvantaged and least educated communities. The UK National Academy will provide advanced online knowledge and skills services to students across the country. And the institutes of technology will usher in a new era in higher technical qualifications.

The creation of Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) also brings a welcome bottom-up dimension to the agenda, bringing local authorities, businesses and education providers together around the same table. Yet if the government is serious about giving communities left behind the autonomy to forge their own innovative paths, its ‘devolution deals’ with English regions must to put back greater responsibility and funding for skills and education. And while the provisions of the White Paper for school improvement are justified, the government must remember that post-16 education does not stop at 21. role that higher and further education can play in its delivery.

The starting point must be to give local authorities decisive control over PSLs – which are described in the White Paper as “employer-led”. The bodies responsible for developing the plans should also be widened to include SMEs, trade unions, arts, faith-based and third sector organisations, as well as universities and colleges. And, crucially, training providers cannot be made to feel less like partners of employers’ representative bodies. After all, it will be up to them to deliver the higher qualifications needed to realize the government’s hopes of increasing skills in terms of productivity. They must play as important a role in the LSIP as in the science and innovation audit consortia announced in 2015 to identify areas of competitive advantage in local and regional research and innovation.

The skills deconcentration offer should not stop there. Local communities need to know that when they call on government for help, their voice will be heard. Local authorities must have the power to declare “skills emergencies” in their key industries, unlocking central investment and empowerment, including localized industrial “upskilling” strategies.

Territories must also better control their skills and education budgets. They need to be able to simplify the process by which local suppliers bid for learning and training funding, unifying the different strands into a Local Skills Development Fund. Part of this funding is to be used to pay full tuition fees and maintenance grants for students of all ages taking intermediate qualifications, certificates and higher learning to postgraduate degrees and diplomas. It should also be available to supplement the payroll of universities and colleges, so they can retain the best professors.

Local authorities should also have the power to set up ‘skills accounts’, funded by contributions from employers and employees, which local workers could use to pay for additional skills or training courses at any point in their careers.

A key role for LSIPs should be to develop innovative educational partnerships between schools, colleges and universities. These should ensure that each local area benefits from the ‘campus effect’ of university-style concentrations of knowledge and teaching, helping learners to enjoy a more integrated journey from one level of academic and professional qualification to the other. LSIPs must also lead the way in overhauling the local provision of career advice, creating dedicated centers that help people understand what their best local learning and employment opportunities are.

Of course, the government cannot simply cede all these powers and leave local authorities entirely to their own devices. It must provide them – and, through them, universities and colleges – with the resources to make the most of their capacity to innovate in the provision of skills and education. That’s why the government’s Future Skills Unit needs to be transformed into a roving National Institute for Future Skills – a ‘think and do tank’ that can give local specialists practical logistical and strategic advice.

According to the same principle, investing in training and development must be made easier for companies. A skills tax credit should be targeted at growth sector industries and skills “cold spots”, and the apprenticeship tax should be extended to a flexible skills tax, supporting investment in vocational training and minimum quotas for supervising “commercial skills”. This should reflect the higher education collaboration model envisioned by the Knowledge Exchange Framework and should be calibrated against measures of how effectively companies support local higher skills and education provision.

Beyond that, the government needs to think carefully about which learning pathways work best for different jobs, especially service-intensive jobs in the public sector. Nursing and care, policing and emergency response are all based on intensive field experience; they would benefit from specialized lifelong learning pathways that better integrate formal learning with on-the-job expertise.

Together, these local authorities and national policy shifts can help make the UK a leader in educational innovation and give real substance to the rhetoric of upgrading. The long-awaited revolution in productivity depends on a revolution in skills – and this revolution must start at the local level.

Marius S. Ostrowski is a senior public policy researcher at the think tank ResPublica. He is also responsible for policies for the lifelong education committeechaired by Chris Skidmore, who published a Skills and Upgrading Manifesto in response to the government’s White Paper.

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