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Councils Call For More County Devolution

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Councils are calling on the Government to ‘fast track’ more county devolution deals to kick-start an adult education revolution. Recent figures have shown a decline in almost 200,000 people taking part in adult apprenticeships and education in the last five years.

The County Councils Network

The County Councils Network (CCN) is a body which represents 20 county councils, 17 unitary authorities and collectively, 25 million people, or 47% of the country’s population. It labels itself as the “voice of England’s counties” and is a cross-party organisation which develops policy, commissions research and presents evidence-based solutions to issues.

The CCN reveals that the number of adults taking part in adult education, training, traineeships and apprenticeships in county areas last year dropped by almost 200,000 people – a fall of 19% – compared to 2018. This is despite high-profile government programmes designed to incentivise participation, with schemes like the Apprenticeship Levy not only failing to arrest the decline but seeing fewer people take up apprenticeships in England’s counties since its 2017 introduction.

Council leaders say that this national approach to adult education and skills is no longer working and have called on the government to equip areas with new powers and budgets to address this half-decade of decline.

Last year, there were six devolution deals agreed in county areas, all of which included the introduction of a directly-elected mayor or leader and devolution of adult education powers and budgets. However, in 2023 there has not been a single deal agreed, sparking concerns that the devolution agenda is losing momentum due to government prioritising deals that do include the introduction of a mayor. This is despite the Levelling Up White Paper promising to devolve adult education budgets through new ‘county deals’ with county authorities – without the need for area to accept a directly-elected mayor or leader.

The CCN is now calling on the government to fast track its devolution agenda in county areas, ending the sole focus mayoral deals to allow more areas to agree deals in areas which are not suited to a mayor, in order to give local leaders the tools to address skills shortages.

With England currently facing both a significant labour and skills shortage, the CCN says that time is of the essence to equip local areas with the tools they need to incentivise participation and upskill residents. Councils are best placed to develop adult education in their areas as they know the areas where skills gaps are located locally as well as employment shortages.

The network has also called on the Government to go further, including devolving the Apprenticeship Levy to local areas rather than it being nationally set. Whilst national spend on apprenticeships and workplace learning has increased from £1.8bn in 2017/18 to £2.3bn in 2022/23 this has not arrested the decline in apprenticeships so councils urge a ‘local knows best’ approach instead.

The Apprenticeship Levy was introduced in 2017 to increase apprenticeships, but in county areas there has been a 6% decline in the five years since its introduction, with over 20,000 fewer people taking part in apprenticeships in 2022 compared to 2017.

The CCN says that the government should also restore the adult education budget to its 2010 level of £3bn a year. In 2021-22 spend on classroom-based adult education dropped to £1.44bn last year. This includes traineeships, another function which could be effectively devolved, the network argues.

For classroom-based adult education and skills, there has been a 21% decline in participation over the last five years, with 80,000 fewer people taking part in county areas in 2022 compared to 2017. Community learning has seen the biggest decline – a drop of 42% or 83,000 people over the period.

The data is taken from this government dataset here, and is broken down by apprenticeships, education and training, and community learning to give an adult education total for the 37 CCN members. The figures on adult education spend are taken from this briefing from the Institute of Fiscal Studies here, and relate to Figure 6.4.

Adult Education participation in county areas – 2017/18 compared to 2021/22

Type2017/182021/22Reduction% Reduction
Apprenticeships373,680351,98021,700-6%
Education and training379,530299,74079,790-21%
Community learning199,840116,23083,610-42%
Total adult education953,050767,950185,100-19%

Cllr Tim Oliver, Chairman of the County Councils Network, said:

“Despite clear evidence showing the benefits of adult education and the government’s efforts to improve numbers, there has been a half-decade of decline in participation in England’s counties, with the number of people falling by a fifth over the last five years: contributing to the present skills and labour shortages in many local areas.

“Well-intentioned national reforms, such as the Apprenticeship Levy, are no longer working, having failed to address the decline in apprenticeships. We need all hands to the pump to kick-start the economy, and we are calling for an adult education revolution where powers are devolved to local areas so we can devise local solutions to local challenges.

“The government must fast-track further devolution deals as soon as possible, including agreements without the need for a mayor, in order to equip local areas with the adult education budgets and powers to incentivise local participation and address skills shortages. But we are calling for ministers to be bold too and devolve the Apprenticeship Levy to local areas as well as restoring the adult education budget to 2010 levels.”

Final thought

In light of the recent data demonstrating a significant fall in in adult education, training, traineeships and apprenticeships, it makes sense that councils are calling for further devolution to allow localised and specialised approaches, rather than top-down one-size-fits-all initiatives. Moreover, the Levelling Up White Paper promising to devolve adult education budgets through new ‘county deals’ with county authorities – without the need for area to accept a directly-elected mayor or leader. The Government should live up to this promise.

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