Four things the next London Mayor can do for Learning and Skills

15 April 2016

A decade ago Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London had the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) budget of around £1.7bn as his ‘number one target’. I’d just arrived as the new Regional Director for the LSC and my first meeting with Ken was certainly interesting; ‘I’ll take you over like we did Transport for London and sack you’ is not a common welcome to a new job, at least not in my experience.

Ken was clearly passionate about helping more Londoners to get on in work and life and he believed that more could be done with what was a big budget for 16-19 and 19+ learning. In the end, after a formal review of the Mayor’s powers (led by a certain David Miliband), the LSC stayed intact (for a little while anyway) and we established the London Skills and Employment Board to take a strategic lead.

Disappointingly, the policy freedoms the LSC and the Mayor wanted for London were never achieved and we were forced to operate within a straitjacket which was uncomfortable for all of us. With Boris as Mayor, there was, perhaps, less passion about learning, skills and life chances and the issue of devolution of the budget took a bit of a back seat.

That’s the history and experience I took with me into our roundtable this week, with Demos, which we held at the impressive conference facilities of Westminster Kingsway College. We were launching our agenda for the new Mayor of London in which we set out some realistic but ambitious targets to help more Londoners get on in learning, skill and employment.

So what’s different, a decade on from my earlier experience? I was struck by two things. Firstly that there is a much more sophisticated understanding of the challenges and issues which London faces in terms of developing a more progressive and successful labour market. And secondly, there seems to be more acceptance and appreciation of the role of the Mayor and the potential the incumbent has to make positive change for London. London needs an over-arching champion, strategy and influence and the Mayor can deliver it.

The work by the GLA, by the Economy Committee (as set out eloquently and passionately by both Fiona Twycross, AM and Stephen Knight), by colleges, our own research and others has all contributed better intelligence about the problems and helped point towards some of the solutions as well. Our agenda sets some of these out in more detail – low skills, low employment rate, a hollowed-out labour market, low take up of apprenticeships, a high number of young people who are NEET, big issues for BME communities and people with disabilities and gender inequalities.

The roundtable was a lively and informed discussion about the challenges as well as what the Mayor can do. I took away four areas where the Mayor can make a huge impact. Number one is through leadership, inspiring different actions and behaviours in particular from employers and local government. Number two is to make best use of the resources directly under the Mayor’s control – ESF, Business rates, the Adult Education Budget. Number three is to seek further powers and ensure London does not miss out on the devolution race – particularly important on employment programmes and support with increased scope for JobCentre Plus and the new Health and Work Programme being top of the list to get more control over. Number four is to forge a new set of relationships with colleges, independent training providers, universities and third sector organisations involved in learning, skills and employment.

These four areas of power and influence can be harnessed to deliver the ambitions we set out – deliver full employment, cut working poverty. Make London the apprentice capital and deliver better opportunities for young people.

I hope the new Mayor will grasp the opportunities because London and Londoners deserve to have a more progressive and inclusive labour market.