Northern skills: why the Powerhouse is struggling on education

Apprenticeships in the Northern Powerhouse

The Northern Powerhouse is built on two pillars. One of them, transport infrastructure, gets a lot of attention. The other, skills and education, is often an afterthought.

For the Northern Powerhouse to deliver on its promises, both skills and infrastructure have to come good. That was a key message from February’s New Statesman Northern Powerhouse conference in Leeds, where becg was pleased to be the lead sponsor, and remains a major concern today.

Heseltine: North gets a poor deal on education

The North does badly from Britain’s education system, Michael Heseltine said at the conference. The UK as a whole is mid-table at best among rich countries. And within the UK, the North gets a poor deal. You are less likely to have the education and skills you need to succeed in life if you grow up in the North.

Lord Heseltine made the case for education to be devolved further. We too often tolerate failure in schools, he said. Being average is not good enough. There must be a local responsibility to change and improve.

Haskins: high-employment, low-skill economy

Lord Haskins argued that the UK had cut unemployment at the expense of skills. We’ve ended up with a high-employment, low-skill economy while the French and Germans have taken the opposite approach, he said. He criticised universities that spend more on en-suite bathrooms for students than on providing the best education. And outside universities, he saw the under-funding of colleges and vocational training as a serious problem.

Rotherham: opportunity of apprenticeships

National Apprenticeship Week ran from 5th to 9th March. In Liverpool, Mayor Steve Rotheram now has control over apprenticeships. “The opportunity this gives us as a combined authority to transform the lives of our young people, and put right the failings of Whitehall’s broken top-down approach, is one that we cannot afford to miss,” he wrote.

And yet the Local Government Association reports a 40% drop in apprenticeship starts since the Apprenticeship Levy began. “These figures are an early warning that the Apprenticeship Levy must be improved if it is to deliver the right training at the right time both for employers and for those wishing to pursue an apprenticeship,” said Sir Richard Leese, who chairs the LGA City Regions Board.

Devolution of skills and education has been limited. The Government gave skills funding to Combined Authorities, but they cut it heavily at the same time.

While adults skills and education is, in some areas, being devolved, schools are a different matter. The education of our children has become ever-more centrally controlled in recent decades with local authorities barely getting a look-in.

Everyone agrees on the importance of skills and education in closing the gap between north and south. Reaching agreement on how the problems should be tackled has proven to be a far trickier challenge.

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