The Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) selected Birmingham to host their spring symposium – Thinking about Place.

Host for the Commonwealth Games in 2022, a key location for high speed rail, a city of culture and an unprecedented level of investment aligned with its reputation of being a service sector city, Birmingham has become the natural choice for events and conferences.

As Deputy Principal at BMet, I was delighted to open the event at the college’s Matthew Boulton Campus in the heart of Birmingham, to hear some leading speakers discuss their thoughts on place.

Place’ has never been more relevant at a time when many in Birmingham are questioning the real impact of being in the first wave of the government’s heavily criticised area reviews, and whether this has aided the city’s ability to tackle some of the highest levels of adult unemployment and economically inactive in the country. The newly appointed mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority certainly has many social and economic challenges.

Chaired by Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, the question put to the panel was what does place mean for FE and is developing skills policy around place a good thing? And defining place proved to be anything but straightforward.

According to panellist Dr Fiona Aldridge, place is not simply a geographical concept; place is also about where we live, work and learn, or where we feel we belong. A point later reinforced by the experience of Bedford College in their merger with Tresham – residents they consulted identified more with where they shop than anything else. Developing skills policy is also therefore going to be fraught as the tension between national priorities and local need don’t always align.

So why can’t we have just one national framework for employability for example and allow cities to have local ownership to determine their own priorities within that framework? In Dr Aldridge’s view national frameworks can be too restrictive but there needs to be a core set of capabilities to meet local need without creating a postcode lottery.

Comparing employability skills to the rigour required by the accounting profession however and Kaplan were clear that the strength of their offer was the high level of standardisation regardless of postcode.

Surely the conclusion must be that national entitlement must have enough space to be applied locally but with sufficient rigour to meet employer need.

MP for Edgbaston Birmingham, Preet Kaur Gill, focused on the immediate problem for her constituents and Birmingham more widely. She shared the stark statistics of the high number of working age adults without formal qualifications (14% compared to 8% nationally), the low number of adults with qualifications at level three or above (48% compared to 56% nationally) and the very low number (7.4%) of looked-after children who achieve five GCSEs including English and maths.

It is therefore clear for Preet that FE has a transformative role to play. On the supply side the statistics are equally stark: employers continue to need a more highly qualified work force and according to Preet, in ten years there will be a mismatch between supply and demand of 46,000 jobs.

Director of Skills and Productivity for the West Midlands Combined Authority, Dr Julie Nugent was determined that the solution has to be an agile system, with multiple solutions to be responsive to need. At the heart of this, is collaboration between employers, FE and HEIs. Stating what we all know to be true: these are not new issues, learning from our past successes and from each other will enable us to target better and quicker solutions.

For WMCA the agenda is clear: why wait for government policy, it is up to the combined and local authorities and colleges to tackle these gaps and ensure that growth in skills is inclusive.

Whilst being clear about the combined authorities’ role in reinforcing ‘place’, some delegates were more cautious and concerned that place actually comes with a cost, where combined authorities themselves compete for funds with a potential to create a postcode lottery.

We all recognise that collaboration in FE is more likely to address anomalies in demand and supply, but how do we incentivise FE to put collaboration over competition?

Marguerite Ulrich, Chief Human Resources Officer from Veolia was a welcome addition to the panel and able to share her experience as an employer. Marguerite was clear in addressing the challenge from the Chair that the private sector doesn’t have the capacity to act locally due to corporate structure – national or global.

However working in the private sector is not mutually exclusive with addressing local need. Veolia has social value targets which means engaging with local, disadvantaged communities enables access to a greater labour market.

Running a training arm too means that employing through apprenticeships is essential, but also requires collaboration with other providers to ensure that all skills needs can be addressed. For Marguerite, the key point is for employers to be clear on their workforce planning and identifying partners who can help deliver this.

The role of apprenticeships continued to dominate the debate. While the role of the WMCA in administering the adult education budget is key, it is unclear how devolution is going to address the scale of the issues when this budget is so small.

The panel was united in recognising that the apprenticeship levy and adult loans provide far more opportunities. If we consider place to be at the heart of our skills shortage perhaps more devolution is needed.

The government’s apprenticeship policy is doing more for social mobility than ever before according to Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers. The Times now has a guide to the best apprenticeships.

How soon will we get to a point when employers are saying that their apprentices are doing better than those in graduate schemes?

Perhaps we are already there? But apprenticeships are by their nature demand led not plan led.

But this doesn’t mean that apprenticeship policy is at odds with ‘place’, quite the opposite. People want to remain local and apprenticeships offer just this. According to Mark Dawe, apprenticeships provide far more opportunities in terms of learning and application than more traditional classroom based learning.

Apprenticeships are better in giving people skills that are relevant to their place; and more than that these skills are then transferable locally, nationally or globally – wherever in fact someone chooses to call their ‘place’.

Applying the success of the apprenticeship programme to the long term unemployed is, however, difficult and the need for collaboration becomes more important to access this hard to reach cohort. Cross-agency working becomes critical to re-engage these people and the role of traineeships, highlighted by delegates, has to be an essential tool in offering the first step back to employment.

POLICY CONNECT BIRMINGHAM

The panel also recognised the need to break through to those whose experience of formal learning is not great. We need to be more innovative to engage with those who are disenfranchised and prevent further social issues. Delegates described how they are working to access those furthest from the labour market, but this is costly and needs more investment in the youth infrastructure to better serve young people.

Dr Aldridge suggested that we need to create an environment where we are all tripping over opportunities to learn. Offering learning opportunities where residents hold an interest is more likely to lead to further learning.

Matthew as Chair questioned whether it is true to talk about people not having the skills, surely aptitude to learn and progress is equally as important.   To reinforce this point, if we look at the longer term, young people and adults need to be adaptable more than ever when we consider the skills needed by a 50 year career.

In summing up this spring symposium on thinking about place, the barriers and opportunities have to be local and education and employers can offer the solutions needed. We must endeavour to continue to work collectively across the sector to ensure that national policy can offer a framework that can adapt to local need. Perhaps the best example of this is the implementation of the apprenticeship levy programme – however this debate lacked in voices from smaller employers and it would be interesting to gain their viewpoint.

The solutions discussed by the panel members were clearly underpinned by collaboration at all levels. If collaboration is so essential to address our local skills issues, how can we make this happen in an arena of continual political and policy change, the uncertainty caused by Brexit and continued pressures on funding and budgets?

Devolution and the work of the combined authorities is designed to target local economic and social issues but they, like the FE sector are also are competing for limited funds. I am left wondering “how does this support collaboration?”

Or are we looking down the wrong end of the telescope? Perhaps true collaboration will result in accessing more funding and being able to address local needs and place more effectively.

The symposium has served to reinforce our ideas of the need and ambition to collaborate but not explored how we do it. Perhaps we just need to up our game and join forces if we are serious about addressing these issues.

Louise Jones, Deputy Principal, Birmingham Metropolitan College

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