From education to employment

The Role of Employer Training in Levelling Up

Ewart Keep, Emeritus Professor, University of Oxford

The Levelling Up White Paper in its sections on education and skills makes a number of statements and promises about the role of employers, noting that an over-centralised approach to policy making has ‘gone hand-in-hand with the lack of a clear role for business and civil society in helping to shape and deliver policy locally’ (Page 111, Levelling Up White Paper).

The white paper asserts that via ‘employer-led’ Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs), which will be put on a statutory footing, the ‘reforms will embed local employers at the heart of an increasingly devolved, outcomes oriented system way in which skills policy is formulated and delivered’ (Page 193, Levelling Up White Paper).

The white paper also establishes some relatively modest targets for increases in state-funded training activity, perhaps most notably 200,000 extra adults receiving re- or upskilling per annum, of which 80,000 are to live in deprived areas.

What are we to make of these plans?

LEPs and LSIPs

The first observation relates to the previous vehicle for securing employer commitment and buy-in to delivering skills and local labour market information and intelligence – the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). Some employers have invested considerable time in the activities of their LEP.

The Levelling Up White Paper is coy about what their skills role (if any) will be once LSIPs are rolled out nationwide, but those firms and individuals who have expended effort on their work may not feel best pleased that this is to be side-lined as Whitehall rolls out its latest shiny new institutional mechanism and consigns LEPs to the increasingly crowded junkyard of education and training’s institutional history.

Misunderstanding Employer-Led

A second and more profound observation is that it is now abundantly apparent that the government does not understand what the phrase ‘employer-led’ means. If employers are to be ‘at the heart of’ skills devolution and the revitalisation of less productive and prosperous localities, then it seems reasonable to ask what rights, roles and responsibilities government is assigning to them? What does government want or expect them to do to address the policy agenda laid out in the Levelling Up white paper?

The answer is a very partial one. The right of groups of local employers to specify a list of skills required from local FE colleges is to be enshrined in the operating principles of the LSIPs and to be backed up by sanctions on colleges that are believed to be failing to respond vigorously enough to these skills requirements. What remains painfully unclear is what roles and responsibilities employers themselves are going to play in revitalising local skills supply.

Other than asking that they band together under the wing of a chamber of commerce (or other local employer body) and formulate a shopping list of skills they would like to be gifted at taxpayers’ expense, it is extremely hard to see what government’s ‘ask’ of employers is. Where are the reciprocal actions that government wishes employers to engage in in recompense for the power granted them via LSIPs? Of this there is no mention. Does the government want employers, for example, to provide more apprenticeship places for young people? Does it desire them to increase the volume and quality of the training and reskilling that it offers its adult employees? Does it expect them to increase their training spend? How and in what ways is DfE expecting employers’ own efforts to be married with and contribute to the skills needs identified in the LSIPs? Are LSIPs a ‘something for something’ deal, or are they a ‘something for nothing’ deal? The responses to these important questions remain unknown after reading the Levelling Up White Paper because they are not broached, still less answered.

Adult Upskilling and Reskilling

The importance of resolving these issues is underlined by the looming crisis in adult re- and upskilling, where the long-term trend in employer provision is alarming – a decline of perhaps 60 per cent in training days per annum between 1997 and 2017.

With the impacts of moves to Net Zero and digitalisation likely to require significant updating of the skills of the workforce, this backdrop suggests that policy is facing a major challenge. In this regard, when set against the likely scale of the training need, the Levelling Up White Paper’s target of 200,000 per annum extra (state funded) adult learners per annum (80,000 of whom will be from disadvantaged areas of the country), appears at best modest and at worst trivial.

Recommendation 1

The government needs to sort out what, if any, residual skills role it will assign to LEPs once LSIPs have been fully rolled out.

Recommendation 2

The government needs to engage in a frank dialogue with employers regarding their future rights, roles and responsibilities within the skills system, and to establish the means to measure progress towards whatever shared goals are established.

Recommendation 3

The government needs a more ambitious adult upskilling and reskilling target to have a meaningful impact on local productivity and meeting the challenges of net zero and digitalisation by 2025 as well as 2030.

Ewart Keep, Emeritus Professor, University of Oxford

Post-16 Education and Skills: Levelling Up Everyone, Everywhere

Campaign for Learning’s paper Post-16 Education and Skills: Levelling Up Everyone, Everywhere, is a collection of 18 articles and recommendations by leading stakeholders and thinkers across the post-16 education and skills sector.  

The paper covers six key considerations for the Levelling Up agenda – national and place based strategies, young people, lifelong training, lifelong learning and post-16 providers. 

As the articles show, from the perspective of post-16 education and skills policy, levelling up is about people as well as places – the policy canvas is vast, the perspectives diverse and the insights important.

Together, our authors demonstrate the need for strong, nationally based as well as place based strategies if everyone, everywhere aged 16 and over are to level up through education and skills’ 

Part 1: Levelling Up and National and Place

  • Andy Westwood, Professor of Government Practice, University of Manchester -  Levelling Up and the Department for Education  
  • Sam Freedman, Research Fellow, Institute for Government  – Levelling Up and Post-16 Education and Skills  
  • Fiona Aldridge, Head of Skills Insight, West Midlands Combined Authority  – Levelling Up the West Midlands by 2030  
  • Mark Hilton, Policy Director, London First  – Levelling Up London by 2030  

Part 2: Levelling Up and Young People

  • Geoff Barton, General Secretary, ASCL - Levelling Up and Education: Lots of Stuff but Little Substance  
  • Sam Tuckett, Senior Researcher, Education Policy Institute  – Levelling Up 16-19 Education   
  • Becci Newton, Director of Public Policy and Research, IES  – Levelling Up Participation by 16-18 Year Olds  
  • Kathleen Henehan, Senior Policy and Research Analyst, Resolution Foundation  – Levelling Up 18-24 Year Olds in England   

Part 3: Levelling Up and Lifelong Training

  • Olly Newton, Executive Director, The Edge Foundation - Placing Vocational Education at the Heart of Levelling Up   
  • Mandy Crawford-Lee, Chief Executive, UVAC  – Higher Technical Education, Higher & Degree Apprenticeships and Levelling Up  
  • Ewart Keep, Emeritus Professor, University of Oxford  – The Role of Employer Training in Levelling Up  

Part 4: Levelling Up and Lifelong Learning

  • Stephen Evans, Chief Executive, L&W  – Levelling Up in England through Lifelong Learning   
  • Susan Pember, Policy Director, HOLEX  – Levelling Up as a Nation of Lifelong Learning  
  • Simon Parkinson, Chief Executive, WEA  – The Future of Adult Learning is in the Hands of Local Leaders  

Part 5: Levelling Up and Post-16 Providers

  • David Hughes, Chief Executive, Association of Colleges  – Well-Funded Colleges to Serve Every Community   
  • Nick Hillman, Director, HEPI   – A ‘Higher Education Institute’ in Every Community   
  • Chris Hale, Director of Policy, Universities UK  – Levelling Up and Widening Participation into Higher Education   
  • Jane Hickie, Chief Executive, AELP  – Levelling Up is as much about People as Places   

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