No Strings Attached - How community-led devolution would transform England's skills sector

This is a timely and important report that the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) is pleased to have funded and supported.

Devolution is a critical and fast-moving area of policy crucial to the future delivery of further education and skills. However, while important steps have been made in the past decades towards greater localism, it is evident that there is much work still to be done to ensure effective and inclusive strategic planning of education and training at local level.

Part of the problem, I would suggest, is that England, the focus of this study, has never wholeheartedly bought into the devolution agenda. The way in which our institutions are run and funded, the traditional snobbishness about the local, and the tendency to put our faith in Westminster politicians with privileged backgrounds and little experience of grassroots politics, have all tended against it. Our approach to the planning of skills and education remains, like so many other things in our national life, heavily centralised, with too little scope for local adaptation.

However, the regional inequalities exposed and accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the tensions it has created between local and national government, have made the question of how to facilitate place-based strategic planning and collaboration even more urgent. The pandemic has laid bare the limitations of the localism agenda of recent years; its fragmented, often half-hearted, nature, and the uneven, and frankly unhelpful, distribution of power at different levels of government. The consequence of this, for further education and training, is a system that is top-heavy, often unwieldy, and not sufficiently flexible to respond to changing local circumstances and challenges at community level.

I agree with the author that this need and this matters since national government has never really bought into the principle of devolution, seeing it instead as useful, but in specific, limited ways. The case for community-led devolution, as a general principle for reform, is very strong and persuasive.

This is not to say, of course, that the agenda is without challenges. As anyone who has tried to work strategically at a local level will tell you, the devil is often in the tangled detail of implementation. Making community-led devolution work will involve a broad understanding and appreciation of different types of provision – from adult and community learning to higher education, and everything in between. In addition, and perhaps crucially, there needs to be a willingness among different types of institution to work closely together, to be clear about their role and function, and, where necessary, to compromise. This is achievable, and there are examples of very good practice in this area, some of them highlighted in the report. But this is another area where, I suspect, we have been going in the wrong direction, encouraging competition instead of cooperation and focusing on meeting centrally imposed targets rather than local need.

As the country comes to terms with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis, while adjusting to the numerous other challenges it faces – from climate change to Brexit – it is critical that local responsiveness is built into our response, and local areas are able to tailor their strategies effectively to the realities on the ground. Getting this right will not be easy, particularly at the level of institutions, but it will not be possible without a genuine redistribution of powers and resources from the centre.

Dame Ruth Silver DBE

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