“The devolution revolution is taking hold,” proclaimed then-chancellor George Osborne back in March 2016, outlining moves to devolve further powers to the English regions – with skills provision one of the key planks of this shift away from Westminster.
The May elections saw the unveiling of the first mayors to lead combined authorities in six English regions.
But progress on devolving power and funding has been patchy. To date, just nine regions have finalised devolution deals. Even in these areas, the transition has not been smooth. While the devolution process for Sheffield City was due to have been finalised by the end of last year, a High Court judge ruled that the original consultation “had gone seriously and significantly wrong”, sending the programme back to the drawing board.
And while the adult skills budget was due to be devolved to Greater Manchester from 2018-19, the combined authority’s lead for skills, employment and apprenticeships, Sean Anstee, told Tes this is now expected to take place the following year.
But calls are growing louder for the government to commit to the full devolution of skills provision to the English regions. A report by the Local Government Association (LGA), to be published next week, will call on the government to commit to “going radically further and faster” by working towards the devolution of skills, apprenticeships and employment provision to combined authorities across the country within five years.
The report, written by the Learning and Work Institute for the LGA, argues for the creation of “one-stop” services. These would cover apprenticeships, technical education reform, local adult skills planning, the successor to the European Social Fund and oversight of employment services including Jobcentre Plus and the Work and Health Programme.
It also calls for a halt to the replacement of the National Careers Service, and the devolving of the coordination, commissioning and funding of all-age careers advice to local areas.
Time for 'a step change'
The LGA report points out the current system is one of the most centralised in the world, with employment and skills provision split across 17 separate funding streams that are managed by eight government departments or agencies.
“Despite this level of investment, they often fail to meet local need, address economic and social challenges or make a decisive impact on outcomes for people or places,” it adds. “This is bad for the economy, for employers and for individuals.”
Stephen Evans, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, said: “The report makes a clear case for devolution, with local areas drawing up plans for improving outcomes. Across the country there are great examples of local integration of services and a thirst for greater devolution. It’s time to make a step change where this will mean better support for people and employers.”
The devolution of adult skills funding is due to take place in London in 2019-20. But speaking at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ national conference on Tuesday, David Pack, senior manager for economic and business policy at the Greater London Authority, said that the timescale for devolution was “tight”.
“It’s a big task, in short,” he said. “There is a whole range of unknowns we’re not yet clear on, and we’re reliant on information coming from the [Department for Education] and the government more widely.”
Mr Anstee, of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, said the extension of skills devolution would lead to better outcomes than a centralised system: “A local labour market will thrive with a local, high performing skills system...we can be more responsive and flexible to the needs of our population [than central government].”
This is an edited version of an article in the 30 June edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Your new-look Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents.