What matters is what works

31 December 2013

Column originally published in The Municipal Journal 31 December 2013.

Alongside ‘demand management’ for statutory services over the next five years, economic growth tops the wish-lists of most local government leaders and chief executives as the chief priority for sustained recovery and community wellbeing.
Growth will be the focus of the SOLACE annual seminar and dinner next February.

But, why shouldn’t we also have a stronger focus on skills, learning and education in these debates over the next few years? Firstly, UK and international evidence demands it.

In October, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published its major international survey on the ‘programme for the international assessment of adult competencies’ (PIAAC), analysing literacy, numeracy and technology skills in 24 countries across the world, including a major international assessment of adult skills and prospects in today’s complex local labour markets.

The results did not make great reading. There were some positives, for example, England’s effectiveness in activating highly skilled adults and the positive associations between higher literacy and health, volunteering and political involvement.

Many areas, however, were deeply concerning. We have a large proportion of adults who have low levels of numeracy skills, our pool of highly skilled adults is likely to shrink and low skills impact negatively on social inequalities – especially for young people.

At educational charity, NIACE, we agreed with the OECD that providing low-skilled adults with more second chance opportunities to learn is critical for sustained economic recovery.

Secondly, the new infrastructure for growth and economic partnerships demands this focus. As councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships draft growth strategies for the new 2014 deadlines, the recent All Party Parliamentary Group on local growth recommended empowering LEPs, particularly outside the Core Cities areas, returning to the vision of the Heseltine review.

Colleges of further education, universities, private providers and local education authorities remain central to the skills and educational elements of this planning.

Disappointingly, local government’s Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport’s recent 2013/14 ‘prospectus for growth’ made important calls on government relating to transport, housing, infrastructure and LEPs themselves, but made little noticeable mention of skills or the alarming findings of the PIAAC survey.

Long experience in the field shows that councillors, chief executives and employers are, in fact, deeply concerned about supply and demand in the skills system. The biases in funding regimes that prioritise younger NEETs (those not in education, employment, or training), exacerbate adult disadvantage in local labour markets.

This rebalancing of skills alongside infrastructure, housing and transport now looks set to become the most significant strategic challenge facing the LEPs in 2014.

In the precursors to growth deals, the Core Cities have negotiated hard on skills funding devolution, and have achieved good results as the Sheffield ‘skills made easy’ programme shows.

We know that local communities will be stronger from this focus. At NIACE, our practical work across the country consistently demonstrates the dramatic impact that better understanding of learning and skills deficits, and good planning with devolved funding to rectify them, can have on stronger local communities.

This is a consistently important priority for councillors across local government.

In local communities, what matters is what works. Our work to improve basic adult skills in maths through digital learning, saw the launch of a new Maths Everywhere app at the Skills Show this month. It received praise from the skills minister, Matthew Hancock.

Our recent work for the Department for Work and Pensions on the poor skills planning via work programme providers, demonstrates the big local gains obtained from greater attention to skills in planning the impact of this central strand of welfare reform.

We have also provided LEPs and government with practical tools and R&D demonstrating how local apprenticeships programmes can be dramatically improved for all ages skills planning.

And, our national inquiry into family learning, published to wide acclaim this October, featured everywhere from the Daily Telegraph to CBBC Newsround.

It used local area evidence to demonstrate quantified gains for troubled families, public health outcomes and children’s and adults educational attainment from stronger national commitments to family learning programmes that have suffered badly in the austerity affecting local councils.

Building on our strong relationships and large membership base across local government, we are also launching a new programme in partnership with the UK Commission on Employment and Skills, offering a major, free series of events focusing on better use of Labour Market Intelligence (LMI) in local skills strategies, and the strategic issues facing LEPs in overseeing these in their growth deals.

The first events, in Birmingham, London and York, will feature big local government and LEP input on an issue central to growth and recovery.

With growth topping the local priority list, NIACE will be working across the country developing a stronger focus on skills, learning and education as fundamental to securing sustained economic recovery that our local communities demand and deserve.