No Strings Attached: How community-led devolution would transform England’s skills sector
The UK lags behind similar countries in terms of skills participation and spending. With huge employment and economic challenges on the horizon, we argue that local partnerships of councils, colleges and communities could transform post-16 education in England – if they are given the powers and resources to do so.
The UK’s labour market is undergoing profound structural change. A reconstructed labour market will create new opportunities. But the forces of transformation – automation, Brexit, changing global economies, climate change, poor social mobility and entrenched inequalities, in addition to the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic – are already bringing about negative consequences for many. As the labour market changes, so too are skills requirements for both current and future jobs.
An economy is only as strong as the skills system that fuels it. A society is only as strong as the skills system that enables people to fulfil their potential. That system starts but does not end with compulsory education. Post-16 skills and training policies and programmes create pathways for individuals to enter the workforce, progress their careers, move jobs and learn for their entire lifetime. When labour markets undergo structural transformation, the opportunities they create can be seized, and the negative consequences they bring can be overcome, with the support of a well-functioning post-16 skills and training system.
The problems in the post-16 skills system: fragmentation, competition and centralisation.
But the skills system in England is not producing optimal outcomes for employers and learners. From local government officers and education and skills providers, to business groups and third sector organisations – people working within the skills sector have long warned of problems.
There is too much fragmentation within the system that makes it difficult for employers and communities to engage and navigate. Policy and financial frameworks incentivise competition between skills partner rather than strategic collaboration at place level. Frequent national reforms and centralised control over policy-making and budgets put obstacles in the way of local efforts to streamline skills provision and integrate it with other services, such as healthcare and housing support. Not every part of the country has the same skills needs and provision, nor the same make-up of sectors and types of job opportunities available.
The key to a successful skills system is ensuring that autonomy over decision-making and delivery is aligned as closely as possible to place-level variation. Yet, in England, too many powers and budgets affecting decisions and delivery in local skills systems are still held in the hands of the UK Government. Although there has been some skills devolution to London and mayoral combined authority areas in the last few years, what has been devolved is relatively small compared to what has remained in Whitehall.
The problem with English devolution: piecemeal, institutionalised and bureaucratic.
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 dealmaking than the forging of new centre local relationships; and too slow and bureaucratic to hold the interest of devolution’s proclaimed beneficiaries – local communities.
The principles of community-led devolution: subsidiarity, horizontal accountability and community power England does not just need further skills devolution. It needs further skills devolution to take place under a different modus operandi. We propose community-led devolution, where power devolved is power shared with people and communities, without strings attached by the centre.
Community-led devolution comes with the following core principles:
- The devolution of powers and budgets is determined by subsidiarity – the principle that decisions should only be made centrally when they cannot be made locally.
- Governance is designed more flexibly to enable horizontal accountability, collaborative partnerships and participation of communities.
- Devolution is a means to enhance community power. How community-led devolution would enable more alignment and collaboration in the post-16 skills system.
A new approach to community-led devolution would involve:
- More comprehensive devolution of skills powers and budgets to
combined authorities and partnerships of local authorities, giving local areas greater autonomy over service design, commissioning
and delivery in matters such as 16-19 education, apprenticeships,
careers advice, retraining and adult lifelong learning.
- The creation of local authority partnerships based on Local
Industrial Strategy areas in the first instance in order to prioritise
the delivery of existing skills strategies, but allowing flexibility for
partnership geographies and memberships to change in future.
- The creation of Local Communities Partnerships so that resident
and learner communities have a direct voice in skills strategy and
policy discussions alongside Local Enterprise Partnerships and
- A Community Rights Act to support the rights of communities to
take part in decision-making and the design, commissioning and
delivery (where appropriate) of skills development programmes.
- The UK Government retaining strategic oversight of skills
development in England, forming and enforcing national policy
frameworks and baseline standards in partnership with combined and local authorities and communities.
- Inspections (from bodies such as Ofsted) recalibrated to focus on
skills provision and integrated service delivery across a place, rather than a narrow focus on provision within individual institutions.
The current skills system vs. community-led devolution of skills
In practical terms, community-led devolution represents a step change from the current approach to designing and implementing skills policy in England. It produces a more responsive system that aligns skills training courses better with local, secure employment vacancies in real time and anticipates future demand.
Making community-led devolution happen
To meet the scale and urgency of the challenges facing the labour market, we recommend that England adopts a community-led approach to devolution immediately. Only a more comprehensive form of skills devolution will enable local areas to respond with immediacy to the changing impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on employment, as well as the other forces of transformation still quietly working in the background.
We suggest the following as practical steps that the UK Government and sub-national governments can take in the short-term to lay the foundations for community-led devolution:
- Building capacity: the Government should make the proper funding available to mayoral combined authorities, the Greater London Authority (GLA) and local authorities to prepare for more comprehensive skills devolution. These authorities should in turn help to build capacity among partners and communities to take on more responsibilities and become more directly involved in local decision-making and the design, commissioning, delivery and evaluation of skills programmes.
- Signing off the remaining Local Industrial Strategies: the Government, combined and local authorities and skills partners should work together to update Local Industrial Strategies, ensure that they support the delivery of other local skills strategies, and sign them off so that every part of the country has a locallydesigned skills plan that they can work to deliver.
- Preparing for new arrangements: the Government should create a forum for combined and local authorities, local skills partners and communities to co-produce skills initiatives that are developed before community-led devolution comes into effect.
The UK Government should also undertake a comprehensive
process of identifying and setting out which elements of skills
policy are best run locally, sub-regionally and nationally in
accordance with the principle of subsidiarity.