In the second in our comment series on the Sheffield City Region (SCR) mayoral elections, we’re going to focus on one particular theme, skills and employment, and consider what the Mayor’s big skills and employment priorities should be.

Over the last few days households across SCR have received the mayoral election guide. It details the runners and riders and their big pitch to voters. Understandably light on any detail, the candidates express their high-level priorities – the what, not the how. A number of the candidates highlight the importance of delivering growth and building a 21st century workforce, but beyond the soundbite, what should the new mayor prioritise when they come into power?

Their start point should be the Devolution Agreement, which sets out in (very) high level terms the agreement made between the local authorities in the SCR and Government in 2015. To summarise, it describes a phased approach to the devolution of some elements of the skills budget, not including Apprenticeships or European Social Fund (ESF) provision, and a co-design approach to employment programmes with DWP.

Secondly, the SCR policy team has produced a detailed strategic economic plan, which sets out the challenges facing the region – particularly productivity, job creation and skills development – and the priorities needed to address them, outlining a number of programmes already in place (such as Skills Bank, and a health-led employment trial). This has been further supplemented by additional analysis into particular issues such as skills shortages. Collectively, it’s clear that there is no shortage of understanding of the issues and potential solutions.

So, the Mayor has a formal agreement with the government setting out skills and employment actions and a detailed plan, with analysis, of the issues and priorities; and a mandate to deliver. So… what then should the Mayor focus on?

1) Preparation for a long and tortuous fight with the Whitehall leviathans of DfE and DWP to deliver the existing devolution agreement, let alone additional powers.

Our view is that the Whitehall departments responsible for skills and employment do not want devolution. They do not trust local authorities or city regions, and will use every trick in the book to delay, stifle and prevent devolution.

The Work and Health Programme commissioned in 2017, written into the devolution agreement as a co-design approach, was a classic case study in DWP obfuscation, confrontation, and false promises. SCR was treated as an arms-length stakeholder. And DWP have used the SCR/One Yorkshire political context as a reason to suspend an employment pilot designed to get more SCR residents into work – again written into the devolution agreement. The Mayor must:

  • Unlock the funding from DWP to enable the city region to commission the employment pilot
  • Collaborate with other metro Mayors – regardless of political colour – to present a united front with Whitehall so devolution is seen as a positive, rather than an irritating distraction

2) Capitalise on the delayed devolution of skills funding to the city region, and work with other metro Mayors to push for more devolved powers

If DWP is bad, DfE is worse. It is with no surprise that the devolution of Adult Education Budget (the funding which covers post 19 provision, excluding Apprenticeships and ESF programmes) was delayed, not just for SCR but across other metro regions. Thrown into the ‘too difficult’ box for another year and now due to start in 2019 and, whilst badged devolution, the reality is that the majority of the budget will need to be spent on delivering pre-agreed, national skills entitlements. This gives very limited scope to shape provision to meet local needs (detailed further in IPPR North’s excellent report into devolving technical education to cities).

Attempts by other city regions to propose ring-fencing levy spend on a geographic basis, or using apprenticeship levy underspend to fund other locally defined projects (e.g. advice and guidance) have been met with short thrift by Government. Our sense is that the apprenticeship boat is one that has sailed – albeit in the wrong direction and with a big hole beneath the water line – with a belligerent focus on quantity not quality. Reform’s recent skewering of the Apprenticeship Levy is well worth a read.

Given this difficult context, what should the Mayor’s skills priorities be?

  • Use the Mayor’s office’s influence to drive up apprenticeships in the public sector – a large employer in SCR and so far demonstrating woeful take up of new apprenticeships.
  • Promote a stronger collaborative approach between employers, the city region and providers, so that despite the national restrictions, provision is better tailored to local skills demands. We advocate the New York Career Pathways model, which seeks to build a sustainable and robust pipeline of local talent to meet local job needs through industry specific collaborations between schools, providers, commissioners and employers. It is a replicable model, ideal for SCR.

3) Continue to target the most vulnerable groups living in deprivation in SCR

Whilst employment rates are strong, and economic growth is positive (Rotherham is the fastest growing area in Yorkshire and in the Top 10 nationally), too many of SCR’s residents remain economically inactive. Latest ONS figures (December 2016) highlight that there are 111,500 workless households in SCR (18.7% compared to GB average of 15.1%), with 55,000 children growing up in workless households. The number of people in SCR on the main sickness related benefits (Employment Support Allowance / Incapacity Benefit) is also significantly higher than the GB average, 86,280 (7.4% compared to 6.1%). The Mayor should:

  • Use the influence of the Mayor’s Office to ensure that nationally commissioned programmes such as the Work and Health Programme are working for the region, ensuring that resources are deployed in SCR to support local residents into sustainable and meaningful work that pays
  • Develop proposals for the successor programme for ESF provision – the Shared Prosperity Fund – devolved to meet the specific challenges facing the most vulnerable in SCR

4) Work with the Schools Commissioner and local authorities to apply consistent pressure on schools to increase education attainment

The rate of improvement in attainment at both 16 and 19 in SCR has not kept pace with either national averages or international competitors. 44% of SCR’s young people still leave school without the requisite five good GCSE’s, including English and Maths. A fifth of these young people have still not achieved this level by age 19. Only just over half of 19 year olds achieve level 3 and this is seven points below the national average. The recent Northern Powerhouse Partnership report into the North-South divide in education is well worth reviewing. It must be a ‘non-negotiable’ that education attainment in the region improves and that the Mayor is a figurehead for raising aspiration in schools – particularly in the most deprived areas of SCR.

We could go on, but we’ll leave the comment there for now. Over the next few days we will share further thoughts on the wider themes emerging from the candidates, and consider some of the longer-term priorities and considerations for the Mayor.