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East of England education could do (a lot) better

Opinion | Andy Forbes, education and skills lead, Eastern Powerhouse

Andy Forbes, Eastern Powerhouse (60268250)
Andy Forbes, Eastern Powerhouse (60268250)

While the Eastern Powerhouse may be primarily a business-led organisation, education is still one of our top priorities. The reason is simple: skills shortages are amongst the biggest challenges facing business in the East of England, and this dearth of talent is slowing growth and preventing companies from finding the workers they need to stay competitive.

Simply put, our education system just isn’t producing enough skilled professionals in key growth sectors like engineering, construction, digital technology, and renewable energy – and the cracks are starting to show. This is a long-standing problem. However, in the wake of Brexit and the pandemic, a flood of skilled and experienced staff dropping out of the jobs market has turned a nagging hiring problem into a full-blown crisis.

The skill shortage is also a nation-wide issue, yet the problem has been most acutely felt in the East. Due to the lack of any large conurbations in the region – resulting in a poor and disjointed transport infrastructure – many local students face the extra challenge of long and difficult journeys to their college. And cuts to bus services in places like Cambridge are only making the situation worse.

On top of that, students in the East who are following vocational education pathways (like new T-levels) have far fewer opportunities available than their counterparts elsewhere. A student living in Hertford, for example, has 16 T-Level providers within a 20-mile radius to choose from. Those living in Cambridge have only one option – meaning students who want to complete a T-level in digital production, say, have to travel to Milton Keynes just to attend class.

However, the skills shortage problem is not just about getting young people into good jobs; its also about how to encourage the existing workforce to upgrade their skills and improve their career prospects through training.

With the rapid advance of new technologies, we desperately need a lifelong learning-based approach which ensures existing staff stay ahead of the curve. Sadly, the East has one of the lowest rates of apprenticeship starts in the country, and lags behind most of England in the amount of training delivered by employers.

How might we fix this? An obvious answer would be to greatly improve the level of subsidy offered for student public transport; raising it to match the amount available in Manchester and London, where students and apprentices can travel free of charge. Another useful step would be to increase the funding available for schools and colleges in rural areas – allowing them to arrange their own transport solutions for students where public utilities are insufficient.

In terms of boosting on-the-job training, employers need to be given more incentives, like tax credits, to invest in the up-skilling and reskilling of their staff. However, the long-term solution to the skills issue may have to be even more radical.

Currently, areas like Greater Manchester and the West Midlands are seeking to create a single jobs market across their regions by pursuing an integrated education and transport strategy. The East of England could develop a similar unified strategy for educational opportunities – involving not just schools, colleges and universities, but employers as well.

Gaps in provision, barriers such as travel and cost, and issues with the range and quality of available work experience, are all issues that need to be addressed more strategically. This wouldn’t just benefit students, but would also be a big boost to employers in the region looking to plug skills gaps and raise productivity.

At present the East of England is an archipelago of disconnected islands, which often fail to communicate as they should. Some, like Cambridge, are hot spots for education and skills, but there are far too many cold spots in the East where local students are falling through the cracks.

To (mis)quote the great poet John Donne: “No town is an economic island entire of itself”. Coordinated action at a regional level may be needed to join our islands up, and make the most of our collective assets. With a rapidly growing membership of employers, colleges, universities and local authorities, the Eastern Powerhouse is taking a lead in doing just that.

Andy Forbes is a former FE College principal in Hertfordshire, London, and Bristol. He is now head of development at ResPublica, which set up the Eastern Powerhouse in March this year.

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