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We need major reforms to drive county forward' says Cambridgeshire mayor James Palmer

East Camb Mayoral candidate James Palmer . Picture: Keith Heppell
East Camb Mayoral candidate James Palmer . Picture: Keith Heppell

The region's mayor has his eyes on reforming the education system and bringing health under the remit of the Combined Authority.

The school league table system must change, apprenticeships should be reformed and education should be controlled locally.

These were the thoughts of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayor James Palmer as he continues on his quest to transform services across Cambridgeshire.

He told the Cambridge Independent that we need to find a way to reward schools properly for placing pupils in good quality local apprenticeships.

And he said the country must move beyond the view that the purely academic route to university is for everyone.

Further devolution from Westminster in areas including education is part of his long-term vision, he revealed.

“We need to make sure that we provide a workforce for the future economy,” he told the Cambridge Independent. “It’s about getting in education at a young age and making sure that young people know the opportunities exist but also we need to upskill the current workforce.”

The Combined Authority has already created 500 apprenticeships for people in Peterborough working in the care sector, enabling them to retrain and reach higher skill levels.

There has been a big fall in the number of workers starting apprenticeships in England since the introduction of the government’s levy scheme earlier this year. The levy was supposed to increase the number of people training at work.

But according to Department for Education figures, at the end of this academic year, between May and July, 48,000 people began an apprenticeship. That was fewer than half the 117,000 for the same period last year.

The mayor believes that the government can take steps to reform the system. These steps include spreading the message of the benefits of apprenticeships at an earlier age by introducing career education at primary school, and ensuring that schools and teachers are properly incentivised and rewarded.

“A way needs to be found to reform the Ofsted school league table system to measure not only academic excellence but also technical excellence,” he said. “The vast majority of incentives at present, whether financial or performance-related, encourage schools to direct pupils towards A-levels and then onto university.

“This will only be reversed if we’re prepared to be bold when it comes to reforming the way in which schools are assessed by ensuring that a more rounded picture of a school emerges following an assessment, one which reflects not only the academic results achieved by a school but also the technical excellence and the level of support provided to pupils in enabling them to secure apprenticeship places.”

Currently controlled centrally by Westminster, the mayor said devolving education is a long-term ambition. The mayor cited the years of under-funding for Cambridgeshire’s schools, which he said could be different if controlled locally.

“Now, clearly education itself is not in our remit, and there are things that I would like to be able to do. I would certainly in the long-term bring education into the devolved powers of the Combined Authority so there are policies that are Cambridgeshire and Peterborough-specific rather than just the one-size-fits-all Westminster model.

“Now, that’s a long-term ambition and I’m not sure I can achieve that in the first four years but certainly we shouldn’t be blinkered to the opportunities that are here and we must make sure that everybody in Cambridgeshire has the opportunity to take part in what society is achieving.”

Amid ongoing debate about whether we really need city, district and county councils alongside a Combined Authority, the mayor stressed that public sector reform is “crucial” for him to achieve his plans. “Streamlining locally” and greater devolution from the centre – something the mayor is involved in ongoing discussion about – could transform services, he suggested.

“Every part of governance in Cambridgeshire is overly bureaucratic and some might say that I’m a symptom of that because I’m new, but I have got the ability to make decisions over a wider area,” he said. “I’ve also got the ability to bring forward public sector reform and that comes in many guises. Without any shadow of a doubt things like apprenticeships and education can benefit as well.

“Public sector reform is absolutely crucial for the future of this county.”

Ultimately, the mayor hopes to develop the skills he knows the county needs to thrive. He said the Combined Authority is looking at whether it can finance improvements in careers advice within schools but admits this may fall outside its remit.

“I look at the incredible thriving business hub that we have all over the county and the opportunities that are there and there’s no reason anyone in our society should be missing out. The system we currently have isn’t giving everybody the opportunity to thrive and that’s unacceptable.”

He added: “Creating a skilled workforce is central to Cambridgeshire and Peterborough addressing its productivity challenge. This will only be possible with an apprenticeship system fit for the challenges of the 21st century.”

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