Skip to main content

Skills: A tale of two towns and one city

A new skills inquiry is to visit Bristol, Middlesbrough and Spalding. Sir John Hayes and Barry Sheerman explain why

The Skills Commission will visit Bristol, Middlesbrough and Spalding

The government’s industrial strategy aims to shape our economy and enhance social mobility. In parallel, players in the skills ecosystem are rising to the challenge of providing further and adult education that will support those pillars of policy.

But with the scattergun approach to introducing new schemes such as apprenticeships, T levels, and degree apprenticeships, is the national skills system effective in serving different communities and businesses across the UK? And what needs to be done to ensure that it is working as it must?

Over recent years, the skills system has been in constant flux with policy change and technological and social advances. We now have a fragmented, hard-to-navigate system. The time is right to sketch out a strategy for greater coherence and coordination so that the sector and the people within it can flourish.


Read more: Inquiry aims to provide vision for skills system

More news: Three ways to transform our skills system

Background: Skills Commission demands single teaching qualification


To answer these questions, we are combining the efforts of the Skills Commission, Policy Connect and the Learning and Work Institute to embark on a new project. This will map the blueprint for an ecosystem that can adapt to current and future economic and social priorities.

Why take evidence in Spalding, in Lincolnshire, Middlesbrough and Bristol? As members of Parliament for diverse constituencies, in terms of population and industrial profiles, we know how important it is to gauge the world beyond England’s power cities.

In order to get a deeper understanding of the complex make-up of England’s skills system – and the people it should be serving – we will be taking evidence in three locations.

Spalding represents a vital part of the rural economy, comprising highly successful food and farming sectors. The workforce includes a large number of migrant EU workers and it is an area with one of the strongest “leave” votes in the country.

Skills: the diverse needs of our economy

It enjoys the lowest unemployment rates in Lincolnshire, but local residents typically take home £51 a week less than the national average. Here, we intend to analyse the area’s unique skills system make-up – with a mixture of further education providers, from university centres at college campuses to private training providers catering to local industry.

The area is famous for its production of food and flowers, and the South Holland district alone employs more than eight times the national average in agriculture and horticulture. Apart from its rich agricultural past and present, 23 per cent of South Holland’s workforce is in food manufacturing.

Trades supporting these industries include business administration services; wholesale; retail; haulage and storage – all of which make up a further 42 per cent of South Holland’s economy.

Spalding will face significant challenges. Food manufacturing and the related administration that supports it are considered to be amongst the most likely to be automated. Simultaneously, the district’s population is set to grow from 90,000 by 15 per cent by 2021. Upskilling will also be necessary to maintain local levels of employment.

A forward-thinking skills structure

Is it supported by a forward-thinking skills structure, delivering business and industry needs, allowing local families to thrive? We will be paying most attention to interviewing rural leaders, in particular from the agricultural and food manufacturing industries and the local council, allowing us to understand how business is changing here and what is needed to drive forward sustainable development.

In contrast, Bristol represents an urban centre in the South West, with likely the best links to London of the three areas we are visiting. We want to reach out to the growing creative and technology industry there, as Bristol small- and medium-sized-enterprises (SMEs) are forecast to contribute £5 billion to the UK economy by 2025.

Bristol, and nearby Bath, are also fortunate to boast notable universities, making up 9 per cent of Bristol’s employment. Bristol comprises a larger than average share of employment in professional services, health and information technology – which make up 26 per cent of local jobs and are the result of its two universities. Bristol’s economy is certainly looking to the future.

This city serves a large rural population, bordering North Somerset and Gloucestershire, yet is not a top five UK city in terms of population.

The post-industrial landscape 

With the wealth of industries surrounding the higher education establishments, Bristol has a growing economy with one of the best employment rates of cities in the UK. Importantly, Bristol’s devolution is advanced in terms of the West of England adult education budgets, skills plan development and an emerging local industrial strategy.

However, it seems that other skills, employment and economic opportunities are being neglected. For instance, we want to investigate why arts make up just 4 per cent of its job profiles. Given that Channel 4 announced the establishment of a new creative hub in Bristol, and that the Bottle Yard Studios is now expanding, can the skills system be responsive to employer needs in this sector?

Finally, Middlesbrough represents the post-industrial landscape, unlike both Spalding and Bristol. This northern city is experiencing an economic struggle with relatively low levels of social mobility. This suggests that the city needs to create and grasp new opportunities, allowing its population to thrive through learning, as Middlesbrough responds to technological and industrial change.

Having succeeded because of industries such as iron and steel, alongside the establishment of a chemical industry and its port, Middlesbrough remains a stronghold of engineering trades and skills. However, with the difficulties of the UK steel industry and the challenge facing British industry such as car manufacturing sector shrinkage, fresh thinking is needed urgently.

Upskilling and reskilling

This represents an opportunity for Middlesbrough’s skills and education providers to step up to provide upskilling and reskilling of its working-age population and for the local authority to build a vision for Middlesbrough.

Teesside University also offers a stream of graduates to the local economy – which may be much needed given that it ranks 145 on the Youth Opportunity Index, which is below both Bristol and Lincolnshire. We are interested to hear about whether these graduates, local residents and local businesses are flourishing as a result of this, or does Middlesbrough export its graduates? The health sector makes up a large proportion of the employment there (28 per cent). So are qualifications like nursing apprenticeships on the rise here?

Visiting these three areas will allow us to gather evidence from places with different experiences in terms of population, labour market structures, economic output, skills provider networks and socioeconomic inequalities. 

Rather than just focusing on the big cities in England, we are looking forward to exploring how different factors influence the local and regional skills systems to develop a blueprint fit for the future.

Sir John Hayes is the Conservative MP for South Holland and The Deepings, in Lincolnshire, and Barry Sheerman is Labour MP for Huddersfield. They are the co-chairs of the Skills Commission. The project is grant-funded by the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL)

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you