From education to employment

Localism works – but we need leadership

London 2012 has been a showcase for the best of Britain, not only in terms of the fantastic performance of our Olympians but also in the way the games were delivered – on time and within budget. The skills of thousands of people helped to make the games the success they were from construction workers to managers and from competitors to volunteers, everyone played a role in a memorable two weeks.

So, what next for the UK? The Olympics have shown skills matter for the successful delivery of projects and for the economic health of a nation.  Ensuring a country’s workforce has the right skills can’t always be achieved through national policy which forces a one-size-fits-all approach.  The success of our athletes, our rowers and our cyclists was due to the highly bespoke training regimes they followed.  We need to match this approach in how we deliver skills policies and programmes. Different cities and regions have different priorities and we need to ensure the supply of training meets the demands of the industries, businesses and people in these locations. With the Government guaranteeing £40bn for investments in growth industries such as broadband lines and energy networks, different skills sets will be needed according the locations in which these projects  are being launched.

There is long-term evidence to prove a local approach works. According to the Centre for Cities seven out of eight of the best performing cities today had above average skills levels in 1901. Meanwhile 80 per cent of cities with vulnerable economies in 2012 fall into the bottom 20 cities for skills levels in 1901. For example, in 1901 Oxford had 7.8 per cent of its workers in professional occupations – i.e. they had high skills levels – and in 2012 it remains a high performing city as a result.

The recently announced City Deals are looking to build 21st Century success based on local priorities, delivering specific skills matched to the needs of cities. For example, Sheffield will have complete control of its skills budget to enable a localised approach. Meanwhile, there will be apprenticeship hubs for Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Nottingham, enabling the cities to boost apprenticeship numbers, which they see as vital for their area. There will also be a ‘Guarantee for the Young’, with innovative new ways to give every young person access to a job, training, apprenticeship, volunteering or work experience for Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle.

While the City Deals are undoubtedly a step in the right direction in terms of securing funding and local autonomy, there is a question over leadership. The cities given the deals don’t have mayors, unlike the capital where the Mayor took a leading role in both securing and delivering London 2012. Perhaps the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) will step up? But the Federation of Small Businesses has warned they lack the core “administrative funding” to organise major projects. Also, whilst many have a university representation on their boards, a report by the Independent Commission on Colleges in their Communities raised concerns over the lack of further education representation in the majority of LEPs. The report warned this could affect colleges’ ability to impact on skills delivery. Perhaps this is an opportunity for local skills providers to step into the fray and offer support to drive through the deals?

Whatever challenges we may face in terms of delivery and who will take the lead on this, history shows getting skills right can improve the prospects of towns and cities. Following the games London will go from strength to strength. Let’s hope the City Deals provide the impetus to other cities, like the success of Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and others will spur on our Olympians of the future.

Sarah Jones is chief executive of learndirect, the nationwide e-teaching organisation


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