The meeting welcomed the Skills Minister, Gillian Keegan MP, and other parliamentarians and experts to discuss the new Skills For Jobs White Paper.
We were exploring the theme of how best to support those in the most disadvantaged communities and the need to concentrate on entry level and progression from lower skilled roles - given the White Paper’s emphasis on higher level qualifications.
Co-Chair of the APPG for “Left Behind” Neighbourhoods, Paul Howell MP, gave a presentation in which he shared data from his constituency (Sedgefield) which showed significant differences in job prospects and educational attainment across neighbouring wards.
It demonstrated that even though it was possible to define a whole area as “disadvantaged”, when it came to targeting support where it was most needed, it had to be tailored to very specific neighbourhoods, even individual wards.
The Skills for Jobs White Paper has an interesting challenge at its heart therefore. A crude exercise shows what that challenge is. A word search of the document delivers 90 instances of the word “national” and 134 of the word “local” and only 9 of the words “region” or “regional”. Thinking about Mr Howell’s presentation, it feels entirely right that “local” should be one of the dominant concepts in the White Paper.
We at the WEA believe in the power of local. The WEA is a charity which (outside of lockdown) delivers courses in thousands of community venues, to students who travel on average less than 2.5miles to attend. Our curriculum is often built by speaking to local people, community groups, charities and employers, so we can fulfil their needs. But, does the Skills for Jobs plan allow for organisations like us?
The question for the government is, how do national initiatives, such as the National Skills Fund and national employer standards, translate into the kind of localised delivery which the Sedgefield example shows is necessary?
What are the conduits and enablers that link them together? Where are the regional or sub-regional frameworks that might help? We believe the WEA could be a strong partner in enabling their plans.
The Skills for Jobs White Paper introduces Local Skills Implementation Plans. They really must address local need, at a granular level, if they are to be most effective. Too many programmes in the past have floundered because the solutions have been parachuted in from those with only a broad understanding of what is needed or because they have been constrained by national guidelines which do not allow for local flex.
That means that although they may take their direction from national standards and frameworks, they need to be informed by intelligence and evidence from those who know local areas in the greatest level of detail. That is best achieved if they are developed in collaboration with those communities and with the local organisations who are closest to them. Organisations such as the WEA are well placed to assist.
It will be tempting to align Local Skills Plans with the a few fixed points – the biggest local employer, the local college that serves the biggest catchment. But this will lose the nuance and detail required?
Alongside the “anchor” institutions must be a fluid network of partners – particularly those who have the flexibility to connect with the neighbourhoods with least infrastructure.
The WEA is expert in supporting those with the fewest qualifications in the most deprived neighbourhoods. They will need a link point – an access ramp – to the opportunities for learning and work which will be facilitated by the Skills Plans. Without those links, many of those most in need will continue to be “left behind”.
In the Chancellor’s Budget, we saw some initial steps towards a “place-based” approach to recovery with the announcement of the “Levelling Up Fund”, including some investment in employment and skills. In the words of the prospectus,
“We recognise that levelling up requires a multi-faceted approach, from supercharging our city regions, to supporting our struggling towns, to catalysing industrial clusters in the sectors that will drive the future economy.”
What seems to unite most of the funding streams under this Levelling Up umbrella is a focus on place and a reliance on existing structures – local authorities in particular – to identify the priorities and deliver the outcomes. But the Skills White Paper puts the onus elsewhere - on the new Local Plans led by the Chambers of Commerce - while the role of LEPs and Mayoral Combined Authorities remains unclear. We need to find a common thread through this emerging maze of initiatives. And that will require greater innovation to ensure that local communities have a stronger voice in this post-pandemic recovery.
Employers and education providers are among those who can build the infrastructure that neighbourhoods require, but it will not be sustainable unless local people give it meaning and purpose. The WEA is one of the organisations ready to support local communities to make their voice heard.
Simon Parkinson, CEO and General Secretary, The WEA