Two of the most prominent elected mayors in England are pressing Westminster to cede control over adult technical skills, saying this is key to raising national productivity.
Andy Burnham, Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, and Andy Street, Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, begin negotiating with the government this summer over the next generation of English devolution deals, and have powers over vocational skills at the top of their wish lists.
“We’re not just saying we want it because we want it, which I guess is sometimes how the argument for devolution can come over,” said Burnham, a former cabinet minister. “We’re asking because we need it and actually, more than that, UK plc needs it.”
Potential investors rate the skills gap as their top concern, but at the moment an overly centralised system meant he was unable to steer provision towards the labour market, added Burnham.
Research published in June by the Institute for Government into the impact of metro mayors, who during the past five years have been elected to represent nine city regions in England, formed a similar conclusion.
A report by the think-tank highlighted the benefits of existing powers the mayors have over the adult education budget — a modest pot devolved by Westminster in 2019, which funds GCSE-level training for people aged over 19.
Devolution had made a difference as mayors could now flexibly target basic training to the needs of their areas, said the Institute for Government.
It highlighted how the West Midlands Combined Authority, chaired by Street and focused on economic development across 18 local councils, “identified and started to respond to a growing shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers in the latter stages of the [Covid-19] pandemic, well before national government had become aware of the problem”.
The Institute for Government said Greater Manchester had analysed its local market data and “identified a particular challenge faced by people who had been laid off during deindustrialisation in the 1980s, and who had no formal qualifications having started work straight from school”.
“These people were too old to qualify for free training under the previous policy approach, and were left unemployed or in low-paid jobs,” it added, so Greater Manchester removed an age restriction on basic training.
Core qualifications form a key part of the skills gap. One in four UK adults is estimated to lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, according to the OECD, the international organisation. Research from the Learning and Work Institute, a research body, shows how the proportion of adults with low levels of literacy and numeracy varies markedly across England.
Onward, another think-tank, has meanwhile highlighted a deep regional inequality in intermediate and higher-level skills.
Since the start of the 21st century, the national boom in higher education has widened existing skills divides, as London “uncoupled” from everywhere else, it said. “This explains much of the inter-regional productivity gap,” added Onward.
The think-tank recommended mayoral control over the apprenticeship levy, which since 2015 has taxed 0.5 per cent of a company’s annual pay bill for traineeships. Employers have criticised the tax as overly bureaucratic and inflexible, and they have handed back more than £3bn in unspent levy to the government over the past three years.
Onward found take-up of apprenticeships among small and medium sized businesses had halved since 2015. “This decline has been particularly felt in the places where apprenticeships have historically mattered more — in the midlands and the north — where there are fewer non-vocational roles to offset their loss,” it said.
The think-tank added mayors should be given more responsibility “for supporting small and medium sized businesses to recruit apprentices, and hold them to account for driving up numbers”.
Make UK, the UK trade body for the manufacturing sector, is supportive of the idea.
“Manufacturers do want to see that local evidence of investment in skills,” said Jamie Carter, senior employment policy manager at Make UK. “I think we would probably broadly agree that mayors, combined authorities, would inherently have a better idea of what’s happening in their area and their local labour markets than central government.”
Ewart Keep, chair in education, training and skills at Oxford university’s department of education, said successive governments have dismantled “almost all institutional bodies” that used to shape training provision at sectoral and local level.
“With the possible exception of Singapore, I don’t know an education and training system that’s as centralised as Britain’s,” he added.
But employers themselves also had to take their share of the responsibility, said Keep. “Between 1997 and 2017, the volume of employer-provided training to the adult workforce fell by 60 per cent. You can’t expect the state to pick it all up.”
Street, former managing director of the retailer John Lewis, said he was not seeking to hold all the purse strings over skills, but to be the “controlling mind”.
“I don’t want that to sound Stalinesque but it is about where does the total picture come together,” he added.
He wanted to guide provision towards need, rather than commission all vocational courses for the over-19s, said Street.
Burnham is seeking to commission vocational qualifications for the over-19s. He also wants co-commissioning powers, shared with the government, for vocational skills for the over-16s.
Some in the education sector, however, sound a note of caution. One further education college principal feared local politicians could repeat the mistakes of Whitehall, by trying to overly plan the system.
“The key is to build the partnership between employers and [training] providers,” he said. “Adding a whole layer of bureaucracy, led by people with little specialist knowledge” would “make things worse”.
Speaking at a Royal Society of Arts event with the mayors last month, Professor Alison Wolf, who carried out a review of vocational education for the coalition government in 2011, was broadly supportive of skills devolution.
But she echoed the concern of the further education college principal. “It’s very easy, having said the layer above is too big and doesn’t know what it’s doing, to be convinced that the layer you’re at knows everything. Please don’t fall into that trap.”