From education to employment

Making the most of the LSIP opportunity

Dr Marius S. Ostrowski

The Skills and Post-16 Education Act was among the last major pieces of legislation passed by the Johnson Government. It is also by some margin the most promising legacy it has bequeathed the UK’s policy landscape.

One of the Act’s landmark achievements was to hardwire skills and education into the DNA of localism policy. Key to this was the creation of Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs): which were region-specific, carefully evidenced actionable priorities designed to map technical skills training more closely onto the current and expected future skills deficits in the UK economy.

In the months since its enactment, the Skills Act’s measures have quietly moved onto the implementation stage. In September, the responsibility for developing LSIPs was allotted to 31 designated Employer Representative Bodies (ERBs): 28 chambers of commerce and industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, and a couple of local sectoral membership organisations.

These ERBs are expected to work with local authorities and education providers in the 38 LSIP areas to devise place-based skills development strategies. Three-year, periodically reviewed plans to turbocharge the productive capacity of local learners and workers over the short to medium term.

Killing two birds with one stone?

Devolving skills improvement like this is meant to kill two birds with one stone. First, it aims to give local empowerment in England greater bite. Local areas and leaders, so the argument goes, know better than Whitehall the exact skills needs of their particular economies.

Which industries are thriving, which ones are failing. Which ones need hothousing, which should be left to long-term managed decline. In other words, which are the likeliest sources of the productivity that is so desperately needed across large swathes of the UK.

Solving long-standing tensions between the interests and needs of the stakeholders?

Second, LSIPs are supposed to solve long-standing tensions between the interests and needs of the stakeholders involved in training and learning provision. On one level, a tension between colleges and universities. They are the ones that must deliver technical, vocational, and academic teaching and research, but struggle bitterly over course provision ‘turf wars’, scarce resources, and starkly unequal fee regimes.

On another level, a tension between these tertiary education providers as a group, businesses, and local government bodies. This is essentially a question of labour market matching: crafting a regulatory and funding environment that ensures a steady supply of people with new credentials and abilities, who can replenish and expand the existing workforce.

To get the UK growing again, the Johnson Government and its successors bet on a decentralised approach. Strategising jointly and severally, each area pulling separately on its own levers, doing its bit to grind the national juggernaut back into gear. And with business, government, and the education sector collaborating seamlessly in that aim.

But as they stand, LSIPs have significant failings that jeopardise the effectiveness of the Government’s approach.

The way the Government has awarded the responsibility for crafting LSIPs risks producing skills strategies that are caught between wasteful reduplication and inadequate intelligence. This is largely because the Government has left it open whether LSIP development is meant to start wholly from scratch, or build on existing efforts to match local skills supply and demand.

The superficial parity between ERBs across the country masks severe discrepancies in how sophisticated place-based strategic thinking on skills is in each area. In some cases, such as the North East, the LSIP process has cut across well-established, meticulously-maintained partnerships between education providers, business groups, and local authorities.

ERBs operating in these areas will create a set of conflicting strategies and competing forums of collaboration. Or, which is just as bad, they will bypass the valuable progress that has already been made, and simply reinvent the wheel. In both cases, this is a recipe for delay and confusion precisely when the UK needs its skills strategy development to be as efficient and streamlined as possible.

Even the designation process for ERBs was needlessly convoluted.

Instead of overhauling the existing infrastructure of Local Enterprise Partnerships, the Government has chosen ERBs from entirely new submissions to competitive tender. In most cases, this has led to what are essentially county-level bodies being put in charge of skills strategy for much larger areas than their familiar terrains of operation.

This raises vital questions over how ERBs plan to identify current and predicted skill gaps within their LSIP areas. How far they are able to generate the granular labour market intelligence needed to inform their LSIP development. How far they can rely on familiar secondary data sources, and the work that LEPs have already carried out. And how lasting they expect the intelligence they gather to be.

This has not been helped by the way that LSIP areas have been defined, which is mostly but by no means always coterminous with the existing LEP areas. Some LEP areas have been combined, others have been broken up or had their borders redrawn. Moreover, the DfE has announced it will periodically review and redesignate the LSIP area geographies in future, adding another dimension of strategic uncertainty.

Ultimately, the main question hanging over LSIPs is where the buck for making skills improvement actually happen eventually stops. Will it be the ERBs who devise skills strategies, ostensibly at the behest of local businesses? The local authorities who administer them and bid for central Government funding? Or tertiary education providers who have to craft the well-trained, upskilled workforce of the future?

These questions demand an answer, and the areas of uncertainty built into the LSIP model urgently need to be ironed out. Without this, it is likely that the collaboration between business, local government, and tertiary education providers that the Skills Act envisages will fall far short of its expected promise.

By Dr Marius S. Ostrowski is the Executive Director of the Lifelong Education Commission, supported by ResPublica. He is on Twitter as @mariusostrowski.

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