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Will devolution create skills ghettos?

31 March 2016

At the beginning of the 20th century the majority of young people had little ‘career’ choice; in the main they entered local jobs in their local area, often following in the footsteps of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. For some, a grammar school education offered new opportunities, but this was not the norm. A hundred years on and we are faced with calls for devolution and localism, with the power for decisions about planning for technical and professional education being taken at a local level to meet local needs. Does this proposal mark a return to limited opportunities for those taking a vocational route? Or does it offer local areas, and so local people, the chance to expand beyond their traditional focus? In England, we have had 35 years of qualification reform. That’s 35 years of tinkering with either the qualification and funding system, which some may argue has left us with a ‘McDonaldised’ version of what we once had. It is only with thanks to the Wolf Review that we started to move away from the Government’s market-orientated obsession with qualifications. Incidentally, in most international systems the state awards qualifications as they deem them too important to leave to the market. We have now in no uncertain terms entered an era of 'spatial reforms'. Think: area reviews, localism, devolution and the work on routes through education into technical and professional occupations. The routes agenda could prove to be useful if the Government listens to warnings from academics on transfer systems and subject hierarchies. There need to be opportunities to move from technical and professional to academic and vice versa. A student with A Levels should be able to take up an apprenticeship, just as a student with a technical level qualification should be able to go onto university. Human behaviour is not always linear. Devolution on the other hand marks a more permanent shift of power from the centre to localities. This interestingly comes soon after the Government has committed to taking all schools out of local government control through the ‘academisation’ agenda, effectively centralising them. The 16-19 qualification and accountability reforms, where power and control is nudged closer to the centre, are much more prescribed and examined. Let's consider what the Government is trying to devolve in terms of budgets. The adult skills budget has been turned in to the adult education budget. We will get three year block grants, flexibility in terms of delivering non-qualification programmes, but we will have to answer via outcome agreements to local authorities that do not yet appear to have the capacity nor capability to manage a local skills system. There are certainly doubts around how well they currently manage their duty to manage post-16 transition for students with special educational needs. Local enterprise partnerships are calling for specialisation to meet local area needs, often for a narrow set of growth priorities that do not represent the rump of jobs in terms of expansion or replacement demand. This is all very well for those who wish to stay in the local area, but what does ‘smart specialisation’ mean for geographical or social mobility? Will technical or professional routes mapped to local need send students down a localised pathway limiting horizons and opportunities further afield? There is no such suggestion for a degree or A Level route – students will still be able to study any variety of subjects. By removing or limiting the choice of a wide technical and professional offer we risk returning to yesteryear where only those who had the opportunity of an academic route also had the opportunity to think beyond their local area or industry. We need to consider both local needs and industry needs, especially in an age of such rapid automisation. Equally, we must recognise that perfect alignment isn't possible nor desirable - if we achieved this the system would probably be in entropy. As a product of the FE system, it seems natural for me to ask the question 'what does living in a deprived area, dormitory or a horizontal economy do for your life chances?' I know; I studied a subject at a rural college for which there was little to no local industry. It kick-started a career that took me around the world; an opportunity for which I am very grateful. David Corke is the Director of Education Policy at the Association of Colleges. This blog has been put together in association with FETL, an independent charity and think-tank, which is working to strengthen the leadership of thinking in FE & skills. FETL was conceived to offer to sector colleagues the opportunity to spend time thinking, on behalf of us all, about the topical concerns of leadership in today’s complex education and training system and to do so in order to advance knowledge for the sector’s future.