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Skills: a crisis of aspiration?

Skills: a crisis of aspiration?

🕔05.Mar 2018

As I listened into the latest city skills debate last week, the most striking aspect was that which was not said, writes Kevin Johnson. 

There was hardly a mention of the first finding of the recent Centre for Cities report: that Birmingham has the highest share of people with no qualifications in any UK city (16%) and a lower share of people with high-level qualifications than the national average.

Think about that for a moment.

Significant numbers of people in Birmingham have no qualifications across several age groups and we trail behind ever other major city area. That means they are either not part of the labour force or can only hope to access low skilled, low paid work.

In a room of education professionals and employer representatives, the story told by Centre for Cities was not new. As one participant remarked, almost the same presentation has been made for the last 15 years.

Urgent action needed to tackle Birmingham’s skills deficit

Educational attainment is slowly improving, but the gap between Birmingham and the rest of England is not narrowing.

There was a question posed about whether the curriculum was fit for purpose, much as Ninder Johal remarked recently at his Signature Awards.

Birmingham does cranes…and skills debates

There was also wide agreement on the challenge of core skills –  people arriving at university and then into the world of work without what most of us would consider basic competencies like interpersonal and communication skills.

There is widespread belief that the education profession has been battered by reform and change. It is a political football, perhaps kicked only slightly fewer times than the NHS. So, calling for more radical reform is not always helpful.

In trying to resolve the challenge of preparing young people for employment, there are a bewildering number of programmes and initiatives. All well-meaning and many effective in their own terms, but just too many.

Discussion also centres on the demand side of the equation and, in particular, how employers can inform policy makers and education providers about the skills they will need, not just today but in five and ten years’ time.

With automation, the rise of the robots and artificial intelligence – not to mention the impact of Brexit – that is arguably more challenging than ever.

Send for Allardyce! We’re topping the wrong league tables

The question of place is the other constant theme and how the increasing attractiveness of Birmingham can be better communicated.

Substantive solutions can only come over the long term. So, Birmingham has to address the short term skills gap through migration.

For all of Birmingham’s skills challenges, there is good news about the appeal of our universities.

Institutions in the West Midlands are doing a good job in attracting students, but we then lose many degree holders.

It is an increasingly attractive place to graduates who are originally from the area – both those who study here or gain a degree elsewhere.

However, this retention will not alone solve the gap in qualification levels with the national average.

Given that dramatically changing educational and skills attainment relies on central government and long term plans, discussion inevitably turns to what can be done at the margins.

How Apprenticeships are organised and promoted; improving careers education and how devolution of the Adult Education budget is used to support improvements in further education infrastructure can all make a difference.

In this latest skills debate, there was again a view expressed that there is a problem with the level of aspiration which some young people bring to university or to employment.

Is there also a crisis of aspiration among policy makers?

Mayor Andy Street told the Conservative Party Conference that skills is his priority. His frustration, and that of many others, with the Department for Education is clear.

Street: ‘Addressing skills challenge is my priority’

Some participants at last week’s discussion didn’t quite use the words once uttered by Tony Blair (he of “education, education, education”) about the civil service in the context of public sector reform – “I have the scars my back.”

But they might as well have done.

That is no reason not to continue to press for reform and for the devolution of powers and resources to leaders at the level of the functioning economic geography.

Mr Street made the re-location of Channel 4’s headquarters to the region his main campaigning aim at the start of this year. He seems confident in another West Midlands win.

It would be a coup and a victory over which he could claim even greater credit than for the successes of the City of Culture and Commonwealth Games.

There is a strong argument that its move would, over time, have a cultural benefit. But there is a debate about the long term economic impact of moving jobs around the country in the context of generating additional jobs.

Broadcast Boost: would Ch4 generate new jobs?

The West Midlands long term economic prospects will be improved by a better skilled workforce, as more businesses tend to invest and create jobs in places where they can recruit the right talent. More highly qualified graduates will also be attracted to the area if the economy further re-balances toward more knowledge intensive businesses compared to Birmingham’s historic reliance on public services.

We hope the team that commissions Countdown, Dispatches and Location x3 is convinced the West Midlands should be their new home.

But, mayoral priorities need a re-injection of aspiration towards tackling the skills gap. The intransigence of DfE should not deter.

In the short term, eyes are on the output of the WMCA’s Productivity and Skills Commission, which will receive its first tranche of evidence shortly, and the Regional Skills Plan which is due before the Board in May.

How will the Mayor align the promises in his manifesto with the WMCA’s Strategic Economic Plan and emerging local industrial strategy? Exactly how can he deliver his zero youth unemployment pledge – a question even asked within the WMCA?

As Gabriele Piazza, the Centre for Cities researcher behind Train, Attract and Retain said in his post debate blog:

There is therefore a need for the current mayor to set out this vision and begin to shape it, even if he won’t be able to see it through during his current term.

Mayor Street has done much to improve the rhetoric about the West Midlands. He does optimism like almost no other modern politician. He has given new voice to the aspiration and pride of a region which has always been there, but which often was modest and quietly spoken.

Andy Street often remarks “it’s our time.”

Well, it’s time to spell out a bold aspiration about resolving the region’s long running skills crisis.

That should include focussing on early years education and improving literacy and numeracy, regardless of the fact the shocking level of qualifications is hardly new or that primary responsibility currently resides at Sanctuary Buildings in Westminster.

Perhaps Channel 4’s first commission when it arrives could be the latest version in its Educating series – Educating Birmingham, the story of how the Mayor, local leaders and education providers took control and halved the proportion of people with no qualifications, matching the national average.

A note on statistics and definitions. There are various definitions of geographic areas and data sets, but for the most part Centre for Cities uses Primary Urban Areas (PUAs) which, in the case of ‘Birmingham’ includes Wolverhampton, Dudley, Walsall, Sandwell and Solihull (but not Coventry). So, there is a degree of interchangeability in the use of Birmingham and West Midlands in this post.

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