A (New) Design for Learning: Doing skills devolution differently

September 1, 2020  |  By Charlotte Morgan, Senior Policy Researcher, NLGN

When we talk about devolution, as we will do increasingly when the UK Government’s Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper is published this Autumn, we should remember that it is the enabling arm of subsidiarity. This principle holds that decisions and actions are best taken at a level of government as close to citizens as possible, with central government only taking on tasks that cannot be performed effectively at a regional, local or community level.

Devolution is particularly beneficial in policy areas where conditions vary from place to place and cannot all be supported by a centralised ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Employment and skills policy are key examples of this.

New Local’s new project, funded and supported by the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL), will set out how powers and budgets in relation to post-16 skills development are currently distributed across national, regional, sub-regional, local and community tiers of government in the UK. We will then analyse and illustrate how powers and budgets could be redistributed across those same tiers of government if the principle of subsidiarity were applied.

Why is this an important exercise? We know that power is more centralised in the UK than in any comparable country in the developed world. Devolution is supposed to be a practical solution to this issue: remedying excessive centralisation by redistributing power and resource across multiple levels of government. It is by definition a top-down process, requiring a higher level of government to transfer power to a lower level. But when central government has too much control over the process, as is particularly the case in England, devolution becomes too focused on governance and institutions and far too piecemeal, with only small amounts of powers and funds devolved in dribs and drabs. A case in point: only one new area (North of Tyne) has secured a deal with the UK Government since summer 2016.

Looking at skills policy in isolation, this incremental, piecemeal, institutions-focused and excessively top-down model of devolution is hampering progress. Skills strategies are generally developed and implemented regionally and locally, but significant policy and funding decisions are generally made nationally. Employers and learners alike are struggling to navigate their way through this fragmented system.

The UK needs an efficient and effective skills system now more than ever. The Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing global recession, the rising automation of routine workplace tasks, the future of the UK outside the European Union, and the urgent need to prevent worsening climate change – these factors are already re-shaping labour market requirements and will do so even more profoundly in the next 20 years.

Developing and implementing detailed skill strategies tends to be the preserve of the regional/local level, as different kinds of places in the UK (whether urban or rural, coastal or inland, old industrial towns or relatively new commuter towns) have different skills needs and opportunities that a centralised ‘one-sized-fits-all’ strategy cannot fully cover. But how can regional and local leaders respond to the challenges ahead, and make the most of new opportunities, if many of the policy and fiscal tools they need are held in Whitehall?

Guided by the subsidiarity principle and the notion of ‘unconditional devolution’ proposed in our Community Paradigm report, NLGN’s project will present an alternative model of devolution that transfers powers and resources in full to the most suitable level of government to manage them effectively. We will argue that it is comprehensive – not piecemeal – devolution that the country needs to reduce fragmentation in local skills systems, enhance collaboration between skills leaders, and create new roles for communities rather than new institutions.

NLGN’s project will serve as a reminder that devolution can be truly transformational for places under a different modus operandi. The current approach to devolution is not the only possible approach. If Government wants a functioning and – dare we say it – world-beating skills system, it needs to hand over the reins to the regional, local and community leaders who know their places best.

If you are interested in learning more about this project, please contact Charlotte Morgan by e-mailing cmorgan@nlgn.org.uk.