'It’s only one cheer from me on devolution so far'

David Hughes, chief executive of the AoC, says he wants the apprenticeship levy top-sliced and used strategically

adult education budget devolution london mayor

The launch of the Skills for Londoners Strategy reminded me that back in 2006, I found myself in the mayor’s office at City Hall in London, wading through applications for membership of the London Skills and Employment Board. It was Ken Livingstone’s office then and we spent a few hours deciding who would help him influence and support a new skills and employment strategy for the capital.

His bid to take over the Learning and Skills Council with a post-16 budget of around £1.7 billion had failed and the new board was a compromise agreed by the skills minister of the time, Bill Rammell. It was designed to have influence, but no devolved powers, and, as the LSC regional director, I was tasked with supporting it.

A lot has changed since then, of course: the credit crunch, a near-decade of austerity, Boris and then Sadiq as mayor, swingeing cuts to post-16 budgets, the apprenticeship levy, amongst others. The other pertinent change is that this government decided to devolve some post-16 money for the first time and the current mayor, Sadiq Khan, will be able to determine how it is spent.

Plus ça change

With those changes, then, it’s fascinating to compare the LSEB strategy of 2007 with the 2018 equivalent. From my reading, this really is a case of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. And I, for one, am pleased about that.

I’m pleased because the fundamental needs of London and Londoners remain the same, which is why in 2007 we had a mayor wanting “to sustain and enhance London’s successful and globally competitive labour market so that it meets current and future needs of employers and London’s residents” and 12 years later “a vision for a skills system that is tailored to the diverse needs of London’s businesses and its population”. Plus ça change.

I’m less pleased, though, that the fundamental challenge also remains. In 2007 the mayor spoke passionately about wanting a system in which, “whether they are in work or not, Londoners have the right support to acquire new skills and succeed in the workforce”. Now the mayor is, with equal fervour and sincerity, looking for “opportunities for Londoners to improve their skills and be better equipped to compete successfully in the labour market.”

Need to address poverty

Both mayors have been driven by the need to address poverty both in and out of work. I could go on; the parallels are striking. That has to be right, given that the need and the challenges remain roughly the same because whilst a lot has changed, in many ways little progress has been made.

That failure is more a failure of national policy and funding rather than a failure of successive mayors’ endeavour and intent, and it stems from what has been a less than wholehearted approach to devolution of post-16 education spending.

The Adult Education Budget is an important part of the spending, but it is a fraction of the overall Department for Education budget. The £311 million expected to go to the London mayor is probably less than half of the apprenticeship levy London’s employers are paying, and greatly diminished from when I managed the money at the LSC.

The AEB is largely spent on the vitally important aim of helping Londoners get the basic skills they need to participate, the first and rightful priority in the new strategy and the first step for millions of people. But it is not enough and does little to support priority number two, of meeting the needs of employers as skilled EU citizens fail to arrive, migration slows and technology changes workforce practices. Skills gaps will widen and recruitment will be more difficult. That’s where the failed learner loans policy needs reviewing, and the government’s Post 18 Education and Funding Review needs to focus.

Retraining and upgrading of skills

National policy does not support people to retrain, to upgrade their skills, to be able to progress whilst in work into better jobs unless they happen to work for an employer that has a progressive workforce development strategy. More and more Londoners are not in secure employment with a "good" employer that will support their career; for many, they have few opportunities to improve their skills.

That progression, which is right and fair for so many people, is also what employers need. It could be a win-win; with more skills mobility, employers could by-pass recruitment difficulties and fill skills gaps. But the funding and the national policy are not there for the mayors in devolved areas to be able to support that.

It’s such a shame, because aligning what employers need with opportunities for adults to train, reskill, improve their education would be easily supported by colleges which have the appetite and the capabilities to do so much more.

So, it’s only one cheer from me on devolution so far – a focus through the AEB on basic skills to help people participate in life and work is great. I’ll be offering a second cheer when the apprenticeship levy is top-sliced and used strategically to make sure that programme is delivering better.

A final third cheer will come, hopefully when the post-18 review reports and a new system of education is agreed and implemented that supports and enables people to improve their skills at all levels, to be able to progress from basic skills all the way through to professional skills.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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