Chris Skidmore: Ministers need a place-based approach to skills

11 Mar

Chris Skidmore is MP for Kingswood and was Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Very soon the Skills Bill will become law. This is a welcome development, since the bill is a jewel in the crown of the Government’s ambitions for levelling-up. Robert Halfon, the Chair of the Education Select Committee, has praised the Bill as a clear step towards achieving a full-blown ‘skills revolution’ for the UK.

Yet, I am concerned that the Bill in its current form does not go far enough in addressing a common problem in our education system – the centralisation of skills and opportunities in a small cluster of towns and cities, and the broad ‘hollowing-out’ of other areas as a result.

For far too long, the UK’s school leavers have faced a stark choice: stay in their home communities, or leave to pursue opportunities for training, education, and professional advancement elsewhere.

Some are lucky enough to grow up in prosperous towns and cities that are home to thriving industries and well-established university and college campuses – but not enough. For most ambitious 18-year-olds, moving on up means moving out.

Often, the places where they undertake their post-18 training and education are where they end up settling once they finish it. They feel the magnetic pull of one of a major city like London, Manchester or Birmingham. Returning home becomes an occasional familial formality.

Of course, it is only right that learners should strive for excellence, and pursue the best options for skills training and scholarly education available to them. But we need to recognise that this comes with a cost, both for them and for the places they come from.

For learners, it is the cost of dislocation. They are uprooted from their intimate networks of families and friends. Leaving behind the areas where they grew up is a natural wrench. And that pain is only compounded by the social and financial burdens of re-establishing themselves in a new place.

For the areas themselves, it is the cost of a ‘brain drain’. Local communities are starved of the eager innovators and determined talent they need to grow and develop. Their economies stagnate, their industries atrophy, their labour markets shrink, and their high streets fall silent.

This is an unsustainable situation. If levelling up is to achieve its aims for spreading prosperity and opportunity across the UK more evenly, it has to reconcile the interests of learners and communities.

new report by the Lifelong Education Commission and local partners in Doncaster could provide a roadmap for doing just that. The report explores the concept of a Talent and Innovation Ecosystem (TIE); a model that would pool all learning assets into one place to create a borough-wide community of learners, employers, and educators.

Essentially, this would be a partnership whose stakeholders would be tasked with devising new learning programmes in response to pressing local problems. However, key policy changes are needed if TIE is ever to get off the ground.

Firstly, local authorities must be awarded new place-based budgets, giving them the flexibility and accountability needed for skills and education spending to be redirected to areas most in need of development. Furthermore, a statutory ‘right to retrain’ should be given to all learners, regardless of which qualifications they have previously achieved.

The Skills Bill set out its vision of lifelong learning through the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), which is now the subject of a sector-wide consultation. However, without a structural underpinning, this policy will fail to tackle the fundamental problem of regional skills inequality.

At the moment, LLE resembles a leaky bucket – built to carry resources to the places that need it, but with enough holes that whatever investment is poured in ultimately trickles away before it reaches its destination. Plugging those leaks will require a systematic model for local skills which ensures that Government investment is channelled towards local areas and local problems. The Doncaster report provides just such a model.

The Government has the chance to make the UK world-leading in place-based learning. Places like Doncaster have set a gold standard for how local learning ecosystems should work. Local authorities everywhere in the UK now need to be empowered and entrusted to follow its example.

Chris Skidmore MP is a former Universities Minister, and Chair of the Lifelong Education Commission hosted by ResPublica. He is on Twitter as @CSkidmoreUK