From education to employment

The Levelling Up White Paper’s focus on technical skills promises huge potential for the North

This week’s levelling up white paper signified a critical step in the government’s ambition to reduce inequalities across the UK, a country which is currently one of the most unequal in the developed world.

Skills and education played a key role; unsurprising given the capacity for skills and education to equip individuals for work and improve productivity, thus offering huge opportunity for economic rebalancing across the country.

Among the commitments, the white paper announcements included:

  • the rollout of Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) across England,
  • a new National Youth Guarantee to provide provision for every young person in England to have access to regular out of school activities,
  • the introduction of new Pathfinder areas to better link careers services, employers, skills providers and Jobcentre Plus,
  • the commitment to increase the number of Institutes of Technology, and
  • the introduction of a Unit for Future Skills.

But despite these significant commitments and skills featuring as a key component of the paper, the detail and resources underpinning key policies was lacking.

Across the north of England, significant skills gaps exist.

Just under one in five individuals (18 per cent) in the North have at most a level 1 qualification, and while it is positive that more than a third (37 per cent) of people hold a level 4 qualification or above, this remains significantly lower than the proportion across the rest of England. These statistics highlight the need for skills support at every level, which is why it is frustrating that so much of the white paper focuses on higher level skills qualifications. Of course, enabling better progression routes is hugely beneficial for many, and support must be in place for this, but it is also essential to provide key support for the 18 per cent of people in the North who need help to get on to the skills and employment career ladder in the first place as well.

Greater devolution of the adult education budget

A positive way forward is the potential for greater devolution of the adult education budget outlined in the white paper, something we at IPPR North have long been advocating for. Drawing skills policy closer to the needs of local industry and developing a skills pipeline from the bottom up, rather than through centralised, top-down initiatives, has the potential to foster greater consistency and stability, and offer opportunity to connect in with other complex systems at a local level, such as health and housing support. The benefits are recognised in the white paper itself in its reference to the need to shift the way ‘policy is formulated and delivered, empowering both local leaders and individuals’. But this devolved power must come with sufficient funding to provide high quality skills provision which matches up with local employer need; something the white paper has failed to do so far.

A focus on technical and future skills

The white paper’s focus on technical skills through the provision of new Institutes of Technology, among other initiatives, has huge potential for parts of the North, particularly as the region continues to take a leading role in leading the clean growth revolution. But for these technical skill ambitions to be realised across the country, assumptions must be broken down about technical roles and their viability as career options, especially when compared to the status equated with more academic routes. Policy must be in place at a national level to reduce the bias towards university study. As part of this, efforts must be established early on in the education system to broaden the curriculum and normalise more technical areas of study.

It is positive to see the commitment to the establishment of the Unit for Future Skills in order to get a better grasp of skills needs based on data and evidence. It is crucial that this Unit be locally focused, with local and combined authorities and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) both contributing to the data collection and benefitting from the intelligence gained, in order to inform and shape local skills policy.

What financial support will be offered to underpin the initiatives outlined?

One of the greatest challenges facing the further education sector is underinvestment, following significant cuts to colleges and sixth forms and adult education budgets since 2010.

Research by IPPR indicates that if further education funding had kept up with demographic pressures and inflation over the last decade, there would be an extra £2.1 billion per year on adult skills and £2.7 billion per year on further education compared to 2020 levels.

In the context of the white paper, this is important as there has been no new funding announced and it is unclear what financial support will be offered to underpin the initiatives outlined.

Overall the white paper offers some positive potential for education and skills, but this now needs to be underpinned by a reasonable funding commitment and a genuine plan to devolve skills policy.

This would allow those who understand local need to really shape policy for the better, in turn enabling skills ecosystems to thrive and truly support the local economy and the people it serves.

Erica Roscoe is a senior research fellow at IPPR North

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