From education to employment

LEPs put skills and productivity at the heart of their strategic thinking

Dr Ann Limb CBE DL is chair of the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP)

There’s not a single one of the 39 LEPs that hasn’t put skills and productivity at the heart of its strategic thinking about the future economic development of its local functional geography.

That’s the good news for FE colleges and independent training companies who operate locally and are recognized in their communities as the neighbourhood ‘go to’ providers of professional and technical training.

Following the Chancellor’s recent budget and the BIS Secretary’s plan for increasing productivity ‘Fixing the foundations: creating a more prosperous nation‘, there’s now a national imperative for LEPs to continue to develop the working relationships we have established over the last four years with skills providers and stakeholders.

At a national level, the LEP network has consolidated its formation and now operates as an overarching and coordinating body for the 39 LEP members. It is overseen by a ‘light touch’ management board comprising Chairs drawn from the entire geography of ‘LEPland’. On behalf of the LEP network, its Director Warren Ralls, brings together Chairs and Chief Executives to work on areas of common interest, such as skills, and to interact strategically with government and with the range of stakeholders who seek engagement with LEPs at a national level.

In the arena of skills, this has meant in practice that the LEP network engages with, for example, AoC and AELP to ensure that we understand each other’s organisational issues and to work together on areas of common strategic interest on which to approach government.

Apprenticeships and models of devolved skills funding and outcome agreements are examples of this work in progress, as is the recent letter sent to the Secretary of State at BIS by the major skills sector organisations to which the LEP network was pleased to be a signatory. The LEP network Director works with ‘skills champions’ who, like me, or volunteers from LEP boards and LEP staff who have a particular interest, expertise or experience of the skills system.

In this way, our aim is to engage meaningfully and collectively at national level where this is required and beneficial, but not to limit the scope and sphere of operation locally for each individual LEP.

This is an important message for local skills providers both to recognise and work with. No two LEPs are the same – that is an inherent design feature of their DNA, but all LEPs are developing rapidly and confidently now the strategic intent of the Conservative government has been declared. However, there isn’t a single ‘skills blueprint’ that can be applied universally across the LEPs.

Many of us have identified similar issues, but working in partnership with our local providers and employers, we may prioritize these differently to determine at a range of appropriate solutions that work in our individual functional geographies.

It goes without saying therefore that each FE college and training provider needs to navigate their own route to a local skills and productivity deal. Maybe herein lie the concerns of colleges, providers and stakeholders. Local involvement of employers in skills is to be desired, but what is needed is the ‘right kind’ of employer engagement. As a speaker at the recent AELP national conference said, we welcome local commissioning of skills – so long as it’s ‘good commissioning’.

So I guess that employer engagement we’d welcome would comprise, amongst other things, leadership from companies at the forefront of their products and services who are willing to share this knowledge and resource with providers; positive involvement in curriculum design; assessment; information advice and guidance; student support; work placement provision; mentoring and playing an active role in college governance. What skills sector providers do not want is simplistic or crude employer intervention based solely on meeting short-term business needs.

So there is an important brokerage and commissioning role here for LEPs to achieve – and until we have more detail in the autumn on what Sajid Javid means by the restructuring of FE and local commissioning of skills, we won’t be able to assess whether the genuinely mature and mutually appreciative relations that have been nurtured between most LEPs and their FE Colleges and training providers over the last four years can be further effectively developed in the interests of our local and national

My hope is that government, LEPs, employers and providers will collectively seize the opportunities provided and rise to the challenges presented. Participants in the first meeting of the APPG for Skills & Employment held this week in the Commons, and to which I made a contribution as a LEP Chair and LEP network skills champion, all seemed to be agreed that unless government outlines a clear vision of what a 21st century system comprising a ‘highly skilled workforce, with employers in the driving seat‘ looks like and maps out exactly how over the next five years it plans to achieve this pragmatically, incrementally and in partnership with us all, we will not resolve issues that bedeviled professional and technical education throughout the second half of the last century.

Dr Ann Limb CBE DL is chair of the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP) and is one of the LEP network skills champions. She writes here in a personal capacity

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