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The blue-skies thinker

The new director of the Learning and Skills Council for the South-east has some soaring ambitions for the region. Joe Clancy reports.

Whenever Henry Ball flies above the South-east of England, he enjoys a panoramic view of a "green and pleasant land" of surprising diversity.

The region he oversees has the highest manufacturing output in the UK, yet a third of its land is designated an area of outstanding natural beauty which has 72 kilometres of heritage coastline.

It is the region with the largest population - some 8 million people. Even so, it contains a third of the UK's ancient woodland, a quarter of its chalk grassland, 40 per cent of its heathland and 32 per cent of its meadows and pastures.

Mr Ball, the newly appointed director of the Learning and Skills Council's South-east region, gets a bird's eye view of his domain when he pilots a plane over the area, an activity he pursues most weekends.

His area stretches from Dover, Kent, in the east to Andover, Hampshire, in the west, and from Brighton, Sussex, in the south to Banbury, Oxfordshire, in the north. It has 180,000 young people and 430,000 adults in learning.

More than 40 per cent of people in the region are in managerial roles, compared with 33 per cent across the UK. Education is skewed towards the higher levels, with 20 per cent of working people possessing a degree, compared with 16 per cent across the UK.

The South-east is one of just three of the LSC's nine regions that are net contributors to the UK economy (in which the revenue it produces in taxation exceeds the costs of its public services). The other two are the London region and the East of England.

"What that means is that the region has a critical role in the economy of the country," he said. "It has to look at the global domain in which it is operating.

"It has a long way to go before it is competing at the highest levels of the global economy in terms of productivity."

Mr Ball's ambitions are high.

"It is currently the 45th most productive region in the world in terms of gross domestic product per head," he said. "It would be good to get it in the top 10."

To help to meet that target, he is piloting four projects in close co-operation with the other five executive directors of the districts which make up the region.

There is a business management programme in which an executive director takes responsibility for planning and funding allocations and the monitoring of performance across the region.

There is a 14-19 strategy in which a director works with colleges, training providers and schools to improve opportunities for 14 to 16-year-olds and encourage them to stay on in education or training from 16 to 19.

Then there is a workforce skills scheme in which an executive director works with the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) to agree skills priorities. A major part of this programme involves supporting colleges in becoming Action for Business colleges.

And there is the Strategic Area Review in which an ED leads a review of the effectiveness of local provision and how it can be improved. The South-east is poised to become the first region to complete its review.

Mr Ball sees the Action for Business plan as vital to improving skills across the region.

"This initiative is about helping colleges to re-engineer post-19 provision so that it more effectively supports their local employers," he said.

At the moment, 50 of the region's 67 colleges are assessing themselves with the aim of becoming AfB colleges. There are already 60 centres of vocational excellence based in colleges to support workforce skills.

Mr Ball said the aim is for AfBs to become "part of a network including private and voluntary providers and higher education institutions that provide an area-based service.

We are co-operating with SEEDA to understand the skills requirements of the employer community and work with them to improve the way in which colleges and training providers support the economic development of their areas."

Despite the region's high productivity, based around the high-tech industries of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Surrey as well as the defence and shipbuilding industries in Southampton and Portsmouth, there are a number of disparities in the region in terms of wealth.

"Kent, Sussex, and the Isle of Wight are very much at the lower level of GDP per head," he said. "If you were to isolate these areas you would find that they are less productive than the North-east.

"It is in this environment that we are seeing what we can do and how we can operate."

Stats on the South-east

Regional National

Population 8m 49.5m

Average gross weekly earnings pound;505 pound;475

Average house price pound;193,000 pound;149,000

% of population with basic skills needs

Literacy 2% 3%

Numeracy 4% 5%

Not in education, work or training 5.2% 7.5%

16 to 17-year-olds in training 7% 9%

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