How do we create a more responsive skills system?

By Philippa Mellish, Policy Manager, South East Strategic Leaders

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Philippa Mellish speculates on skills beyond May’s election and signposts new resources to help schools, colleges and SMEs have one conversation, do just one thing, to shape a fit for purpose skills system.

With the dissolution of Parliament only a couple of weeks away, debate is heating up as we accelerate towards one of the most hard to call General Elections. ‘Education and skills’ has not featured prominently in pre-election discussions to date, signalling an area of reasonable consensus between political parties.

First, all main parties agree that there should be greater devolution of power – and to a lesser extent, finance – to local areas. Skills devolution is already part of Greater Manchester’s and Sheffield’s devolution deals, including devolved apprenticeship grant for employers, power to structure FE provision and, in Sheffield’s case, devolution of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) adult skills budget to the city. Post-election deals are likely to build on this precedent, extending skills devolution and strengthening links between providers’ long term offer and local employers’ needs.

Second, there is a shared direction of travel towards increased vocational education and apprenticeships, involving employers. In a recent ministerial letter setting out the SFA’s priorities and funding for 2015/16, National Colleges feature prominently. Announced ahead of Christmas last year, National Colleges are intended to place vocational training on par with higher education, ending the outdated divisions that have held individuals and companies back.

This shift is certainly needed. Vocational routes are an excellent option for those considered ‘more practical’ and ‘less academic’ but if we are to meet business demand for higher skills – and if National Colleges are to compete with the UK’s top universities – they need to be recognised as a valid option for the best and brightest students too. This will require a significant cultural shift among both schools and parents.

A third area of consensus is the need for greater business involvement in education. This underpins both skills devolution and the development of an enhanced vocational skills offer. Much of the rhetoric relating to business involvement is focused on further education and higher education rather than the vital role that employers can play from early years through primary and secondary education. The involvement of major corporations has also featured more prominently, with micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) representing over 99.6% of businesses in the South East – remaining a large, untapped resource.

It is all too often assumed that SMEs do not have the time, resources or inclination to get involved in education. There is a grain of truth in this. SMEs are stretched for time and resources, but there are a good number of sole traders and small employers who recognise that their input is crucial and are prepared to invest in producing ‘work ready’ young people in partnership with schools and colleges.

Working jointly, NFER, London Councils, London Enterprise Panel and South East Strategic Leaders (SESL) have identified a range of promising practice examples of employer involvement in education from across London and the South East in a research report to be published this week called: Improving employability skills, enriching our economy’ . In several cases, local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships play a vital role in brokering connections between educators and employers.

Rather than reluctance, our research found enthusiasm among businesses of all shapes and sizes to be part of the solution for a more responsive skills system. The challenge is maintaining enthusiasm in the face of barriers to engagement. These barriers are not, however, insurmountable; many could be overcome through a simple conversation at the outset which manages expectations. Our new connect card has been designed by schools, colleges and businesses to guide partners through five key questions as the basis for meaningful, sustainable and impactful education-employer engagement.

A key factor for businesses is to keep it simple. As our case studies highlight, there are a plethora of ways that employers can get involved in education. If all SMEs in the South East committed to having one conversation, to doing just one thing – we would see a step change in skills provision. By doing one thing, we can create a more responsive skills system, deliver better outcomes for young people and a fuel more successful south east economy.

To find out more about NFER, London Councils, London Enterprise Partnership and SESL’s joint project Improving Employability Skills, Enriching our Economy, click here.

This blog reflects my own views.

 South East Strategic Leaders (SESL) is a partnership of county and unitary authorities in the South East and surrounding areas representing 8.2 million residents.

Contact: [email protected], 07841 492507.