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Education and Skills as a Driver to Transform Doncaster

Updated: Oct 3, 2021

The below speech was delivered on 14th July 2021 by Damian Allen, Chief Executive of Doncaster Council, during the Lifelong Education Commission's online event

'Levelling Up with Education and Skills'

Good morning, and thanks for the introduction, Chris. As a Chief Executive of a Local Authority, as well as someone with an extensive background in education, I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to share the work we are doing in Doncaster to transform the delivery of education and skills as a key driver behind our borough strategy, and very much welcome ministers’ engagement with suggestions for how Government can support this.

As you’re aware, we are working alongside partners to produce a report on place-based transformation of lifelong learning. As CEO and convenor of the place, I fundamentally believe that all action should be socially embedded and socially situated; we all have a sense of identity, we all have a sense of origin and we all feel a sense of belonging.

Our new borough strategy has as its mission: thriving people, places and planet. Central to human thriving and flourishing is lifelong education and learning. One of my favourite quotes is by Vaclav Havel:

“Education is the ability to perceive the hidden connections between phenomena”

Viewing any local education system as a complex adaptive system, revealing the hidden connections and building greater connectivity have been fundamental organising principles for me, in adopting a collaborative approach here in Doncaster. This has been our developing story for the past 6 years.

Doncaster: An Introduction

Our story, of course, begins with our legacy as a post-industrial borough. The challenges are well known – they’re longstanding and have been exacerbated by the pandemic. As a borough…

· we are one of the 20% most deprived areas in England with 1 in 4 children living in low income families

· Consequently, our health outcomes are impacted. We don’t live as long as we should, and we live more of our years with disability and illness than our more affluent counterparts

· So too are educational outcomes, with a number of our most deprived areas being in the 10% most deprived nationally in terms of education and skills measures

· Doncaster has become a place of low skills and low pay, and the industries the place attracts often exploit that. Social mobility is low and people feel trapped into a cycle of hard work for little reward, often in insecure environments

However, things are on the up… Team Doncaster has worked together effectively in recent years to deliver a number of achievements and improvements. Notably…

Doncaster’s Journey

Since we published our Inclusive Growth Strategy in 2018, we’ve seen some significant achievements. In just five years, our economy has grown by 30%, with an increase in business starts, a growth in both private and public sector jobs, and an increase in house building and affordability.

Partnership collaboration is a key strength of the place. Together we have formed the Doncaster Promise Compact between local businesses and education providers, a dedicated strategic approach to working with Anchor Institutions, and to Community Wealth Building.

Further to this, in 2016 I invited an independent panel of experts to review our education system. The panel laid out 30 recommendations in their One Doncaster Report, all of which we adopted. We now have…

  • A developing University City agenda with 4 centres of excellence tied to local industry specialisms

  • An established ‘hybrid model’ of post-16 education that includes high quality specialist provision such as the National College for Advanced Transport and Infrastructure

  • A successful Inclusion Programme which has seen us opening the first UK Big Picture Learning School

  • High quality 1:1 and online all-age CIAG support

  • As well as, of course, our work to transform outcomes for disadvantaged pupils through the Social Mobility Opportunity Area Programme

Much Done, More to Do

Despite these improvements, as a place, Doncaster still lacks opportunity. It has almost all the ingredients for success, but the traditional recipe simply isn’t working for us…

  • Many of our learners are disengaged with ‘traditional, academic’ forms of learning; with many acquiring non-NVQ level, or ‘other’ qualifications

  • There’s a large gap to the national average at Levels 3 and 4, and a high proportion of residents have no formal qualifications at all

  • Employers report that young people lack the higher level and technical skills, alongside the broader essential life skills needed in the modern workplace

  • This skills gap is exacerbated by an exodus of young people who leave Doncaster in search of higher education, and higher-skilled, higher paid employment

All of this is indicative of a low-skills equilibrium.

Our Strategy & Talent & Innovation Ecosystem

Therefore over the past 18 months we’ve worked with key partners to develop an ambitious 10 year strategy that will bring about a paradigm shift in the way we deliver education.

Our vision is to achieve equitable and inclusive lifelong learning that empowers people to fulfil their potential and thrive in life and work

To achieve this, we’ve identified five priority areas to drive change within the existing system. However, we also commit to taking a regenerative, whole systems, whole place, and whole life approach to life-long-learning. And this requires systemic and cultural change ….

This is why we’ve been working with Michael (OECD). Together, we've shaped a blueprint for the future. We call this the Talent & Innovation Eco-system (or TIE) model.

  • The TIE is deeply rooted in place, centred on a set of key industry specialisms that harnesses the strengths of our local assets. It recognises the needs of our residents and our local employers, which is crucial for us to improve our economic landscape, attract new sectors that offer quality jobs and to tackle the ongoing exodus of young and talented people.

  • It takes a more vocational, innovative and problem-based approach to learning for people of all ages and backgrounds. It places equal value on the development of technical and social/emotional skills alongside academic knowledge – and brings together stakeholders to collaborate on aligning learning with real-world design and commercial challenges.

  • This education to employment learning approach will create new learning pathways to more sustainable careers and help to fill key skills gaps opening up across many key sectors of the local and national economy. It also draws on local expertise across the system to provide learning and assessment that has real currency with employers.

  • TIE also supports more informal learning, through online or badged certificate learning – with huge potential to kick-start new skills, career choices, or to cultivate unrecognised talent.

  • There are a number of cross-cutting TIE initiatives, which I believe will have a transformative effect on people and the place. These include,

    1. First, a programme to develop a Doncaster Curriculum – spanning across stages and ages. Developed in partnership with employers, this would have an associated new set of credentials, and an increased focus on formative assessment, i.e. ‘assessment for learning’ rather than ‘assessment of learning’

    2. Second, a programme of engagement. Facilitated by a Doncaster Centre for Applied Learning that is sponsored by local business, this could accredit qualifications, and communicate the learning offer

    3. Third, a programme to engage with local employers and wider partners to identify learning purposes – setting out what social, emotional skills and industry-specific competencies are needed

  • The TIE is the vehicle at the heart of our Education & Skills Strategy 2030, but it does not stand alone. It is in turn nested within our wider emergent Borough strategy, which has at is core ‘The Wellbeing Wheel’ and its six wellbeing goals. The overall mission of the strategy is radical as it looks at ‘holistic health’, living the best life you can supporting the concept of human flourishing.

  • We want a thriving economy, a ‘good’ economy, an ‘inclusive and regenerative economy’ where equity, access and social justice are promoted, and where residents are empowered.

  • For this to occur it is crucial to see skills for work and life as the portable currency, or human capital in this system. This is the adaptive human potential we want to see flourish in our place to cope with the increasing complex challenges and wicked problems that exist ‘out there’.

Where else in the world has this approach been successful?

As I say, we haven’t created these ideas in a vacuum. We have worked with Michael Stevenson to ensure this approach models best-practice globally…

  • Case study: Pittsburgh – a ‘soft’ approach from government, with funding and ‘license to innovate’

  • Case study: Finland – a ‘hard’ approach, with government stepping in to orchestrate, improve data, and use the data to inform national databases etc.; effectively rewiring the system

What do we need from Government?

Levelling-up is a great concept. We’re all for it. But for us it isn’t just about short term solutions and extra cash, or a few shiny new buildings and a redirected bus route. We genuinely do need to pull ourselves towards what others might take for granted. The key to unlocking our potential lies in developing our skills base. However, what’s also clear is that the existing system isn’t delivering for us. Levelling up for us therefore means recognising that we need to do things differently here.

Our transformation is already underway. The TIE model is emerging, particularly in the health and engineering sectors – supported by schools, businesses, the Chamber, and FE partners.

But there are barriers – ones which, if not addressed by government, will hamper our chances of success.

To be clear, we acknowledge that the policy context is more promising than it has been for many years, both in terms of entrusting local leaders, and in terms of providing lifelong learning opportunities. We embrace the commitments made in the Skills for Jobs White Paper and the Lifelong Learning Entitlement. We also keenly await the Levelling Up Paper.

However, these developments need to be underpinned by greater policy freedoms at the local level, by robust funding, and in some cases, they need to be taken further.

And, as experience from the recent pandemic has shown -- the earlier local government is involved in informing policy development, the better the outcomes.

Going beyond the Skills & Post-16 Education White Paper ….

As I have said, the move to tailor provision to local need aligns with our existing plans and we therefore particularly support the introduction of Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs). The Council recently gave its support for a regional LSIP trailblazer pilot. In the short term, Government approval of this bid, and associated Strategic Development Funds, would significantly catalyse our plans – enabling research into the skills needs of our SMEs and accelerating the development of a high-value curriculum offer.

In the longer term, there are areas in which Government’s proposals could go further.

As it stands, while colleges will have sanctions for not delivering against an LSIP, there are no meaningful sanctions or incentives for those employers who fail to offer purposeful opportunities. Further, young people must also have a role in shaping this. They must have choice. Our TIE model demands a range of learner pathways, and a system which balances the needs of stakeholders.

There are also a great number of our residents who will not benefit from these recent announcements. This includes those who already have a Level 3 qualification. It also includes those who are at the ‘lower’ end of the skills spectrum. A statutory right to retrain regardless of prior attainment, and for skills at all levels would support even more of our residents. This lower-level provision is crucial. It is needed in order to allow people to progress along the skills escalator.

Further, many will not be able to benefit from these opportunities if they are not also accompanied by clear signposting and information about the offer, or by detailed labour market information, and industry-specific careers advice. Further wrap-around support should look to address other barriers to the uptake of learning – including concerns about debt, childcare, and low confidence.

Further policies to incentivise employers to release workers’ time for learning would be additional enablers, particularly since the overwhelming majority of businesses in Doncaster are SMEs.

The LLE will not come into effect until 2025, but, post-pandemic, there’s an urgent need to fund this learning as soon as possible. I’m keen to hear what Government will be doing to bridge this gap.

A full response to the Augur Review, and the forthcoming detail of the LLE should address these issues and assure us that these policies will be backed by comprehensive funding.

Further devolution of powers and license to innovate

In some ways our new strategy is radical. It requires a major shift in what people learn, how they learn – and where they learn. This needs to be supported through changes in the assessment and accreditation process – including smaller units of portable credit.

The pandemic has proven to be an accelerant for this and now is the perfect time to challenge one of those inherent education paradoxes: how do you prove the efficacy of the new, in the currency of the old? Someone once said, whenever you step on a paradox, you always come out with some truth on your foot! For the second year now, there will be no external examinations at the end of reported key stages – and this opens the national cracks to let the local light in to re-think assessment!

To be clear, we won’t take our ‘foot off the gas’ in terms of delivery of the basics, but we can make changes to ensure these ‘twin tracks’ end up at the same ‘ecosystem’ destination. What we need therefore, is license from government to innovate – to work with local partners to develop a Doncaster Curriculum, Credentialing, and Assessment running parallel to national assessments.

The increased emphasis from government on skills-based learning is laudable, but we need to look at the fuller picture – beyond academic and technical skills. We want to grow our provision for problem-based learning, to develop the meta-skills people need to be successful in the labour market. With government endorsement, a Doncaster Skills Passport and Employability Framework could formally recognise those broader skills and competencies.

Of course, the post-18 education system does not exist in isolation. Our ability to make transformational change in this arena is heavily dependent on what happens at earlier ages and stages. Further devolution would enable greater coherence across the system, with MCAs given responsibility beyond the Adult Education Budget. Could, for example, regional skills commissioners be aligned to the MCA?

Government could trial place-based budgeting, giving local leaders have full flexibility and accountability for integrated spending and investment across economic and social policy.

Following years of austerity, levelling up will require additional funding across social infrastructure … and Government should acknowledge that social and economic outcomes are inextricably linked

  • Increasing the availability and affordability of childcare, especially for low-income families as a means to support pre-school education, and to enables adults to upskill and reskill

  • Likewise in terms of investing in children and young people’s resilience and mental health, and evidence-based services to support the most vulnerable families.

  • As a designated Opportunity Area, we’re keenly aware of the difference targeted financial support has in terms of improving attainment and post-16 destinations of disadvantaged young people. Sustained financial support for schools in deprived areas is also key. As is extending both the duration of and scope of the OA to look at wider outcomes for lifelong learning and the cradle to career journey, to become an ‘Enterprise and Skills Area’.

A more coherent/joined-up approach across government departments

There have been several initiatives that we, as a local government have had to respond to in order to receive resources. The Levelling Up Fund, Towns Fund, and Community Renewal Fund to name a few. A continued approach of initiative after intuitive not only makes it intensive in terms of our overhead of responding to them all but it also makes it difficult to manage and plan the future.

We would therefore advocate for a co-ordinated relationship with government convened around the place that makes sense together of the challenges and opportunities we face and the respective parts we can play to make lives for people and places better.

We welcome the opportunity to express an interest in the Partnership for People and Place work to pilot more joined up work at government level around the place and solve issues and grasp opportunities together, and we would very much like to see this become a feature of how government operates in the future. I will therefore be watching with interest at how the pilots go, and how quickly this activity can be scaled moving forward.

Closing statement

The development of our TIE model and delivery of our strategy is key to levelling up. It is place-based, and it focuses on our most immediate and pressing issues. Implemented as planned, and with a supporting role from government, it will change Doncaster, and change the lives of our residents.

Damian Allen

Chief Executive, Doncaster Council


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