Why only community-led devolution will give us the skills we need

November 26, 2020  

Even before the Covid pandemic, UK skills were falling behind other countries in terms of participation and spending. With huge employment and economic challenges on the horizon, Charlotte Morgan argues that local areas and their communities could transform post-16 education in England – if they are given the powers and resources to do so.

In September, the Chancellor of the Exchequer promised “creative” and “bold” solutions to protect jobs during the COVID-19 crisis. At the same time, the Prime Minister announced that there would be “radical change” in national skills policy, pledging a lifetime skills guarantee and significant investment in further education.

Yesterday’s Spending Review pledged a significant sum of money for employment and skills initiatives. But places and communities have been conspicuous by their absence in the Government’s skills pronouncements. There is nothing creative, bold or radical about change if skills policy continues to be dictated by the centre.

Devolution will not correct over-centralised decision-making if it continues under the model that currently exists within England. Shaped by pernicious state and market paradigms, English devolution is too piecemeal and miserly in the powers and resources on offer; too obsessed with governance, institutions and reorganisation than local power and outcomes; too dominated by transactional deal-making than the forging of new centre-local relationships; and too slow and bureaucratic to hold the interest of devolution’s proclaimed beneficiaries – local communities.

If the country waits for the pandemic to disappear before changing its approach, it will be too late.

New Local’s latest report, No Strings Attached: How community-led devolution would transform England’s skills sector, presents a community paradigm approach to skills devolution. Community-led devolution would allocate decision-making powers and resources in accordance with subsidiarity – the principle that decisions and actions are best made as close to citizens as possible. This means devolution is more comprehensive than it is now, with a significant increase in decision-making powers and resources devolved to local areas tosupport the delivery of place-based skills strategies. It would also include the full devolution of budgets required to implement those decisions into ‘single pot’ place-based budgets.

Community-led devolution would also enable governance to be designed more flexibly to enable collaborative partnerships and participation of communities. This would shift the direction of accountability flows from ‘vertical’ (top-down) to ‘horizontal’ (place-based) to incentivise whole systems approaches and place-based collaboration. As power flows to places rather than just institutions, the local state is also required to step back and make space for community power to grow. This means communities are involved in decision-making, design, commissioning, delivery and evaluation of skills strategies and programmes where appropriate and through a variety of deliberative and participatory engagement mechanisms.

Ultimately, more comprehensive and community-led devolution is about freeing up local skills systems to deliver better outcomes. Aligning skills and training programmes better with local vacancies and employers’ skills demands. Reducing fragmentation so that services can be integrated better across a place and part of a whole-systems approach to prevention. Ensuring that learning is genuinely the gateway to career progression and social mobility – the great ‘leveller’ in this UK Government’s levelling-up agenda. 

Power is not about control, but strength. Devolving power distributes strength across the system.

The simple truth is we cannot continue with the current approaches to devolution and skills policy-making. They are not working for anyone, especially employers and learners. If the country waits for the pandemic to disappear before changing its approach, it will be too late. The change needs to be fundamental – not tweaks to the existing system, not an extra devolved budget or two – but an overhaul. Power and resource flowing out of institutions and into the hands of the communities – learners, businesses and residents alike – whom the skills system is intended to benefit.

Power is not about control, but strength. Devolving power distributes strength across the system. With immense challenges coming at us from all angles, local skills systems need the strength to stand firm and resilient. We can overcome these challenges, and lay the foundations for future prosperity, if devolution is re-configured to nurture thriving local skills systems and confident and capable communities. 

No Strings Attached is funded and supported by the Further Education Trust for Leadership. We are hoping to develop these ideas in future work. Please get in touch with Charlotte Morgan you would like to share feedback or talk about the report.