Slough does it. Plymouth does it. Even Kidderminster and Worcester do it.
Let’s do it. Let’s get buildiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.
Slightly buried among all the other more high-profile education news this month was the announcement of £900 million worth of funding from the new Getting Building Fund. This money, allocated by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and distributed through the LEPs, is to “support the delivery of shovel-ready infrastructure projects to boost economic growth, and fuel local recovery and jobs.”
So far, so standard rhetoric. But if you review the 296 projects funded, something interesting jumps out. Around 64 of them – 22 per cent of the entire total – are for projects suggested by LEPs to specifically boost skills and education provision, working with local colleges and sometimes universities, too.
In fact, of the 36 LEPs that had projects funded, only six didn’t have funding approved for a skills project. In total, if you count up all the successful bids, over 77,500 learners are predicted to benefit from this funding, which will reconfigure and improve over 320,000 square metres of learning space across the country – almost 50 Wembley stadium pitches.
I think this tells us a number of important things about where the government is coming from.
Investing in skills
The first is that the Westminster government means what it says when it talks about reskilling and levelling up. There’s no reason why a fund dedicated to shovel-ready infrastructure projects ought to be so skills-focused. Indeed, arguably such projects have a longer-term payback period than some of the other projects funded, which are around improving road and rail, faster broadband and new office space. For skills to be almost certainly the largest single component of this fund means it is taken seriously as a national priority.
Secondly, not all funding for skills training, for colleges and for apprentices, will come through the obvious routes. The sector is rightly highly focused on what the FE White Paper will say this autumn. But all other areas of government policy – digital policy from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, or welfare reform from the Department for Work and Pensions, or transport projects from the Department for Transport, as well as local regeneration from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – can benefit colleges and independent training providers and shouldn’t be ignored.
Thirdly, this is a very place-based funding announcement. That’s both a strength and a weakness. The LEPs and combined authorities have done a good job at prioritising their list (full disclosure – a client of Public First’s received some funding as part of South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership's allocation) and consulting widely to make sure that local priorities were met for their geography. So this money ought to be spent on what local areas want, not what Whitehall wants. The downside is that there’s a lot of duplication. Looking through the full list, there’s an awful lot of digital skills training facilities being built, for example.
The fourth point is that skills are seen principally through an economic lens. This might be because the nature of this fund was that it called for economically beneficial projects. But there’s little in here about learners a long way from the labour market or about adult community learning. The role of colleges, and the skills agenda more broadly coming out of Covid, is about jobs first, jobs second and jobs third.
And lastly, collaboration is key. The bids that have been successful all show how the institution that receives the money will work with other local institutions. There are some great examples of HE/FE collaboration or business engagement. Often, this type of work has been lauded by government at a rhetorical level, but not backed when it comes to the crunch. This time, the government has backed it.
As we approach a busy autumn for the FE and skills sector – and the government seeks to right itself after a spring of Covid and a summer of exam chaos – it’s good to see the levelling up agenda start to take shape, with skills at the heart of it.
Jonathan Simons is director and head of the education practice at Public First