I turned up at the Northern Powerhouse ‘education, employment and skills’ summit feeling slightly apprehensive. Between 2000 and 2002, I worked on the South Yorkshire widening participation project with an education brief and found the whole experience hugely frustrating. Short-term funding was allocated against a set of highly defined criteria, none of which represented the best use of the money when the needs and aspirations of the local population were considered.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks had been the overall goal for 50% of the population to achieve a university degree, and again and again we found, when working at community level, that this was an aspiration for a small minority. The majority were seeking practical/ technical skills to replace the industrial jobs that had been ripped out of the area by the Thatcher government in the mid-1980s.
Northern Powerhouse: tomorrow is yesterday?
The day started slowly, with several presentations that rather vaguely referred to ‘action’, ‘levelling up’ and ‘signposting opportunities’, with little reference to any thought-through strategy. This sounded worryingly familiar. The ‘need for better teachers’ was trotted out several times, most emphatically by the secretary of state for education, Gillian Keegan.
When she was challenged on the removal of funding from the education system by her government, she fell back on the accusation that the teaching unions were the problem. There was also a section where she made no reference to the decimation of the children’s centre system by her government, but sang the praises of the reduced Tory offer of family hubs.
Her claim that her government has “transformed apprenticeships since 2010” was later challenged by a representative from the Association of Colleges, who proposed that there were ten million fewer opportunities for adults than those that existed in 2010. He explained that this is principally because the current government insist on controlling everything from the centre as “partnerships mean partnerships on the government’s terms”.
This was very much the environment in which I had been used to working nearly 25 years ago.
The power of the metro mayors
However, the summit greatly improved with the joint presentation from the metro mayors – Andy Burnham from Greater Manchester, Jamie Driscoll from North Tyne, Tracy Brabin from West Yorkshire and Oliver Coppard from South Yorkshire. They discussed the issues in a way that gave me hope that devolution might actually address some of the issues that arise when Westminster governments tightly control streams of funding allocated to areas to address issues that those who hold the purse-strings don’t fully understand.
So, what is a metro mayor, in simple terms? The Centre for Cities describes the role as follows:
“A metro mayor is the directly elected leader of a combined authority. Combined authorities are statutory bodies made up of neighbouring local authorities that broadly cover a city-region. These authorities agree to work together formally to pool resources and powers to function more effectively on issues such as skills or transport. The metro mayor chairs a cabinet of the leaders of combined authority councils… and have significant executive powers and funding available to them to make strategic decisions across whole city regions.”
In other words, they have devolved power to reset agendas to match the relevant area, to ensure that allocated funding is not wasted on unsuitable initiatives, such as had happened in the widening participation projects of the early 2000s.
What’s on the metro mayors’ agenda?
The metro mayors explained that transport, employment and education are front and centre. I have to admit that I didn’t fully understand transport’s place in this trio until this presentation. The point was made that transport links in South East England are much better than those in the North, resulting in the fact that a person living in the home counties (which becomes an interesting term, when considered in this context) would be far more likely to be able to travel to a job or a training course in London than, for example, someone in Huddersfield trying to access the same opportunities a similar distance away, for example in Leeds or Manchester.
The metro mayors therefore have set improving transport links across Northern England as a key priority.
They have also clearly got the message that improving and broadening training opportunities, both for young people starting out and for adults retraining for new roles, is vital to build a strong post-Brexit economy. Comments about ‘better teachers’ again came to the fore, in the context of developing confident problem solvers in the state education system and beyond.
As an experienced teacher, who frequently writes in Yorkshire Bylines on education topics, I appreciated the chance to ask a question during a different part of the day about whether it was really the teachers who needed to be ‘better’ or whether they, and their students, needed freeing from the shackles of a memorisation curriculum, zero tolerance discipline and punitive Ofsted inspections in order to nurture confidence and problem-solving skills.
The metro mayors, and others presenting at the summit left the audience in no doubt that it is now generally understood that a flat goal of 50% of the population attaining a university degree is not a magic bullet to greater national productivity; that different varieties of training and education need to be freely and affordably available in practical, technical and creative fields. This is a huge leap forward, as is their stated quest to remove central government’s stranglehold over England’s education and training system.
The metro mayors already seem to be having a positive effect, and this joint presentation left me feeling quite optimistic for the future.
A voice from the past, looking to the future
This article would not be complete without a mention of the legendary David (Lord) Blunkett, who closed the meeting in the inspirational fashion that I’d observed several times before, dating back to the 1990s. He made the crucial point that initiative creators should not be driving towards strictly dividing academic and vocational training, but looking for partnerships and overlaps.
As a psychology academic who worked on teams training early years practitioners for over 25 years, and as the parent of a PhD trained engineer, I was very pleased that this issue was raised.
I also very much agreed with Lord Blunkett’s point that the advent of the metro mayors takes us into a new era, in which a more prosperous future for the North seems far more tangible than it has done at any time in the recent past.
His comment that what the North need from Westminster is “Partnership, not patronage” was a very optimistic thought to close an inspirational seminar.