From education to employment

Learning Ecosystems: Doncaster’s new model for levelling up skills

A local Talent and Innovation Ecosystem (TIE) is critical to levelling up deep-seated inequalities in towns like Doncaster  

A new report from the Lifelong Education Commission, “Learning Ecosystems: A new model for levelling up skills in Doncaster” argues that skills provision has to be organised at the local level if low-skill regions like Doncaster are to thrive.   

The Report is based on a detailed analysis of existing skills provision and economic needs in Doncaster. It finds that, just as Doncaster’s economy differs from the national economy, so too do its employment and skills needs.

Despite this, education and skills provision is determined by national policy objectives and funding allocations, which means local needs are not being met, to the detriment of learners, employers and local economic growth.  

Damian Allen, Chief Executive Doncaster Council explained:   

“Doncaster is ambitious and innovative and has enormous potential. In the last few years, we have made great strides in driving forward our own agenda, and our new long-term, all-age Education & Skills Strategy puts local needs and the people of Doncaster first.

“We proactively commissioned this report as part of our mission to transform the way we deliver education services locally and is the latest in a line of innovations – which includes collaboration with the OECD to develop a Talent and Innovation Ecosystem Model and hosting the UK’s first ever Global Education Leaders Partnership event – to support us take our aspirations to the next level.”

Central to Doncaster’s plan is the establishment of a Talent and Innovation Ecosystem (TIE).

This model includes developing a ‘hybrid’ approach to Further and Higher Education that will rebalance post-school provision and address the ‘missing middle’ of vocational and technical skills.    The TIE will pool all learning assets in one place and create a borough-wide learning community.

With representation from learners, employers, community partners and educators, the TIE would be orchestrated to formulate new learning programs designed to address local problems and meet the needs of key sectors with the potential for growth.  

Team Doncaster have been keen to develop an innovative ecosystemic model in accordance with international best practice, and have collaborated with Michael Stevenson, a Senior Advisor from the OECD, and the wider global education community, including members of the Global Education Leaders Partnership.

Michael said:   “Doncaster’s Talent and Innovation Ecosystem is both leading the world and learning from the world. Through its innovative approach to retaining young talent and up-skilling and reskilling adults, Doncaster is attracting interest and support from the United States, Europe and Australia.

“It offers a model for place-based learning that can help make levelling-up a reality across the U.K.”  

Doncaster is calling for a ‘licence to innovate’, to collaborate with the Government to develop a local Curriculum, Credentialing, and Assessment framework for learners of all ages, working with and running parallel to national assessments.

If successful, Team Doncaster  thinks the plan can become an exemplar of a place-based approach that can be copied and scaled in other UK regions.   

In response, the Report calls for a ‘place-based’ approach to education and skills to transform lifelong learning and ‘level up’ areas that are lagging behind.

Chris Skidmore MP, Chairman, the Lifelong Education Commission

According to LEC Chairman, former universities minister, Chris Skidmore MP:  

“Skills is by far the most critical chapter of the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper. Without reform of the skills system to change how and where they delivered, the Government’s flagship policy is likely to founder. Key to success is greater devolution of skills to give towns like Doncaster the power and the funding to design localised solutions to fill gaps in provision that are specific to it”.  

The Report was produced for the LEC by members of ‘Team Doncaster’, a partnership of local council, education and business representatives, in conjunction with the national think tank, ResPublica.   

The recommendations include calls for much greater devolution and localism if Levelling Up is to succeed; and reform of national funding and curricular frameworks to remove barriers to access for millions of adult learners who are currently self-excluding themselves from retraining and up-skilling opportunities.  

Key recommendations:

  • New place-based budgets, to give local leaders flexibility and accountability for spending on education and skills in their areas
  • A statutory right to retrain regardless of prior attainment, to support more working adults from deprived areas
  • Removing all restrictions on engaging in training for individuals receiving welfare benefits
  • Offering maintenance grants for adult learners alongside loans as part of the Lifelong Loan entitlement scheme in the Skills Bill currently before Parliament

The Lifelong Education Commission (LEC) was set up by Chris Skidmore MP in 2021 with Westminster-based think tank, ResPublica. Its goal is to break down the multiple and varied barriers to lifelong learning and bring about a whole system change for education post-18.

It advocates a ‘place-based’ approach to adult learning such as advocated in the Doncaster Report, and equitable partnerships between higher and further education in contrast to the current, divided system.  

The Report finds that whilst Team Doncaster has made a number of positive transformational changes to the system in order to improve outcomes for learners, including those made as a result of additional investment from the Social Mobility Opportunity Area, further devolution of funding and powers are required if Doncaster is to succeed in fully ensuring existing skills provision fits with local needs.   

Despite the town having high skilled labour and high-quality economic assets, too few local adults are participating in higher-level learning. 15% of all employers are experiencing significant skills gaps[1].

This poses a significant barrier to growth in Doncaster, which has struggled to match supply and demand for skills in neighbouring cities such as Sheffield and Rotherham[2].   

The picture in Doncaster is indicative of regional inequalities right across the UK, with wealthier and higher-skilled populations better able to adapt to rapidly changing labour markets.

The result is small clusters of places which are charging ahead, whilst less prepared areas are left behind to stagnate.   

The Government`s Levelling Up White Paper proposes Local Skills Improvements Plans (LSIPs) to make technical skills training more responsive to local needs[3]. Meanwhile, Doncaster’s Chamber of Commerce is leading its own LSIP scheme in South Yorkshire.

ResPublica Director Philip Blond says the plans will fail unless more localism is mandated so that towns like Doncaster can develop ‘place-based’ approaches that match provision more closely to local needs and growth plans:  

“Innovation and skills are drivers of growth in a modern, knowledge-driven economy. The current system of national policy objectives and central funding is not working. The Government`s attempt to localise education through LSIPs is laudable but, without a truly place-based approach to skills, levelling-up in towns like Doncaster will be an uphill battle”.  

The TIE would also develop a joint FE and HE prospectus for higher level qualifications in four key areas of the economy: Health & Care; Engineering; Creative & Digital; and Green Technology[4].

Chris Skidmore MP, Chairman, the Lifelong Education Commission

Chris Skidmore MP believes easy-entry into these sectors, and especially green technology, will be vital for the borough to meet is levelling up challenges:  

“A green skills strategy could transform Doncaster’s economy. The UK will need 170,000 more workers to qualify each year in jobs like home insulation, renewable energy and electric vehicle manufacturing if we are to meet our net-zero targets. 1.7 million jobs will need to be created in the net-zero industries by 2030. 1.3 million of these will be in occupations that require low and medium-level technical qualifications, which are in critically short supply currently”[5].  


[1] Employer skills survey (ESS) 2019
[2] Sheffield City Region Local Skills Report, June 2021 p.51  
[3] Levelling up White Paper  
[4] Ortis Economic Research and the University of Sheffield, Industrial Specialisms in the Doncaster economy, December 2018.  
[5] Charlot, Sylvie, Crescenzi, Riccardo and Musolesi, Antonio (2014) Econometric modelling of the regional knowledge production function in Europe. Journal of Economic Geography, online. pp. 1-33.

Learning Ecosystems: Doncaster’s new model for levelling up skills

A launch event for this report will take place from 16:15 – 17:00 on Tuesday 8 March in Doncaster.  Speaking at the launch will be:

  • Chris Skidmore MP
  • Alex Burghart MP
  • Damian Allen, Chief Exec of Doncaster Council

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