A phrase we’ve heard a lot in the last few months is that there will ‘no going back to normal’ once the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided. But it’s worth noting some things never deviated from normal in the first place. Into that category falls post-16 education, and specifically the UK Government’s over-centralised approach to skills policy making.
No two places within England have the exact same make-up of sectors, education and skills provision and current and future skills needs. When labour market requirements vary place by place, it does not make sense that so many of the powers and resources needed to shape local post-16 skills policy in England are still held at the national level. New Local addresses this issue directly in our new report, No Strings Attached: How community-led devolution would transform England’s skills sector.
We see the problem of excessive centralisation of skills policy comprising two parts. First, centralisation exacerbates complexity and fragmentation in local skills systems. In a remote Whitehall-based decision making environment, there is a tendency towards one-size-fits-all skills initiatives. National skills policy and financial frameworks incentivise competition rather than collaboration between local partners.
The Spending Review saw what seemed like significant sums handed to employment and skills initiatives, such as the Restart Programme, Plan for Jobs, and Lifetime Skills Guarantee. But as well as their snappy names, what all these schemes have in common is that they are devised and led by national government, rather than by the places and communities they are meant to benefit.
The second problem is that the process of devolution in England is also heavily centralised. Although there has been some skills devolution to London and mayoral combined authority areas in the last few years, what has been devolved is small compared to what has remained with central government. The current approach to English devolution is piecemeal and founded on vague top-down criteria that exclude most areas situated outside large city regions from accessing devolution deals. It is too slow, too bureaucratic, and too obsessed with changes to ‘form’ through local government reorganisation rather than the transfer of ‘functions’ that local areas need to support their communities.
England does not just need further skills devolution. It needs further skills devolution to take place under a different modus operandi. That is why New Local’s report offers a blueprint for community-led devolution, where power devolved is power shared with people and communities, without strings attached by the centre. It is based on the principle of subsidiarity, namely that decisions should be made as close to citizens as possible.
In practical terms, this means skills devolution becomes more comprehensive. To align decision-making and delivery of skills policy with local labour market variation, we propose that autonomy over areas such as 16-19 education, apprenticeships, careers advice and lifelong learning is devolved to place level. Any devolution of policy would need to be accompanied by devolution of the budgets and resources required to deliver it effectively, as well as a preparation period and funding for skills partners to build their capacity and expertise to take on new responsibilities.
Community-led devolution favours the creation of partnerships, a more flexible governance arrangement founded on relationships of trust and ‘horizontal’ accountability between partners rather than ‘vertical’ accountability towards the centre. As part of the changing culture of place-led partnership, national government’s role would be transformed from micro-manager to strategist. It would work with place leaders to set strategic frameworks and ensure overall quality – there would be no need for a plumber moving from Wigan to Wakefield to obtain a new ‘place-based’ plumbing qualification. Communities’ right to participate in place-based decision-making and the co-production of local skills initiatives would be supported by local communities partnerships and a Community Rights Act.
A more comprehensive and community-led approach to devolution would enable skills strategies and local services to be joined up more effectively, incentivise place-based collaboration, and promote greater responsiveness and resilience in skills policy-making arrangements. It is these qualities that will boost local responses to the COVID-19 crisis and the negative impacts of automation and globalisation on labour markets.
As a country, the shock of the pandemic has forced us to rethink and reassess all aspects of our way of life. Policy making should not be exempt from that. Centralisation is not supporting local skills systems to work optimally for employers and learners. In our new normal, it is local skills partners and communities who should be in the driving seat.
Charlotte Morgan is senior policy researcher for New Local. New Local's research was supported by FETL?.