How skilful is Cambridgeshire?

The Combined Authority’s Skills Committee is due to discuss this 100+ page document under the chairmanship of the new County Council leader, former LibDems MEP Cllr Lucy Nethsingha

You can view the papers here.

The party-political balance of the Combined Authority means that the Conservatives have a 4-3 majority. (Representatives from Peterborough City, Fenland District, Huntingdonshire, and East Cambridgeshire, vs Cambridgeshire County, South Cambridgeshire District, and Cambridge City Councils).

In the grand scheme of things, it is still very early days for both the new Mayor Dr Nik Johnson and also for the county level governance structures that still have an unstable feel to them given what happened with the LEP, the turnover of Police and Crime Commissioners, and the tense relations between the previous Mayor with both the County Council and his party political opponents in the south of the county.

What are officials really asking the Committee to do? On drafting and accountability

This is a personal pet peeve on my part from my civil service days, and something that I think officials need to take on board when drafting papers for elected representatives to debate and vote on in meetings.

Above – from the meeting papers.

The cover-sheet that accompanies such papers all too often invites committee members ‘to note’ something or other. This is not an active clause in my mind – it does not ask the committee as a collective to do something. For this specific paper, the person submitting the paper to the Committee needs to have an active recommendation – such as “Approve the publication of this report, and the communications plan attached at annex…”

Furthermore, I don’t like sentences that start with: “It is recommended…” – because it’s not clear who the recommendation is coming from and with what credibility. This is where officers need to take ownership of what they are recommending – not least because they are the ones who have studied the detail and who have put the work in. Be proud of your work! You got the research commissioned, you consulted the experts, you analysed all of the information – what is your analysis?

The responsibility then moves onto the Committee who then have to cross-examine the officers before giving the democratic legitimacy to the recommended actions – an essential piece of oversight and scrutiny. What assumptions do the recommended actions incorporate? Are there any risks that have emerged as a result of the recommended actions? Are they being properly managed? Are we content to face the media if things go wrong? Because for things like this the face on the telly will be the Committee Chair’s, if not The Mayor’s.

Skills in Cambridgeshire – an agenda that is only one part of the concept of lifelong learning.

Councillors and committee members need to recognise this – there is a much wider set of public policy outcomes (i.e. “Stuff we want to achieve collectively through the state”) than improving people’s skills to make them more employable. This matters because the Skills Committee does not have the budget or the remit to deal with those things alone.

Earlier this year I wrote about the Lifelong Learning appeal made by the Commons Education Committee and its Chairman Robert Halfon MP. I then explored the case of building such a centre in East Cambridge, where more development is planned for the next 20 years. Abbey Ward is one of the most economically deprived in Cambridge. It still does not have a secondary school, meaning for generations children have had to cycle long distances or use motor transport to get to school. While this might sound familiar to many, going forward what would building a secondary school for the ward, and a lifelong learning centre for the city, in that part of town have in the longer term? I’d like to think significant – but how much of it is in the remit and budget of the Skills Committee?

The statistics are daunting:

Even though the county is better than the national average, having nearly a third of employers providing no training for staff in 2019 (with the figure 39% for England – highlighted again by Mr Halfon in Parliament) shows that this is not something a public sector committee throwing money at is going to resolve. It’s even more daunting in Peterborough and Fenland.

38% of residents in Peterborough and Fenland did not have a level 2 (GCSE/O-level) qualification in 2016.

That is a damning indictment on the politicians and institutions that the figure is so low. So turning that around, do they know what the underlying causes are for such a low level compared to the national average? Because the indicative timeframe action shows just how limited the Committee’s powers are to deal with a problem that is actually an indicator of multiple deprivation. (Thus requiring a multi-agency response over an extended period of time.)

Increasing a target by 13 percentage points – a laudable goal but one that can easily be gamed

The fact that there is a target that is being measured and reported against shows that there is a political driver. At the same time, there are ways and means of hitting that target that may suit institutions but may not be suitable for individuals that need the help. Anyone who did A-levels might be familiar about the choices their schools/colleges had when selecting which subject syllabus to choose. In the mid-late 1990s, the A-level Geography syllabus that I embarked on was far, far tougher than the ones my brothers did when they stayed on at school for A-levels. What didn’t help was that the GCSE syllabus my secondary school chose was one that covered material we had done in year 8 – and was marked to a similar standard. So while I got top marks, it was a doddle. Then when I started the A-level, we had a trainee teacher staying with us studying at Homerton College, who told us the standard we were working at was the equivalent of a second year undergraduate degree. So we jumped from Year 8 (13 year olds) to 2nd year at university (20 year olds) over the course of the summer holidays. Which was fun. But we were told that with the harder syllabus, more of the better students get higher grades.

So. Take your pick as the head of a course provider. Do you select to provide courses in the easiest level 2 courses in order to tick the box – even if the courses won’t make your user group any more employable, or do you pick the level 2 courses that will be harder to deliver, require more effort, but ultimately make a difference to the prospects of your user group – while running the risk that you could have your budget cut if they do not succeed?

Other things that could affect the prospects of course participants and candidates – things that can fall far outside the remit of the Skills Committee

There are a whole host of variables and factors. I learnt this in my civil service days working on Local Government Reform – the now defunct Local Area Agreements policy. Rather than having lots of top-down targets, the principle was to negotiate outcomes and targets with local councils *and* partner institutions, and not prescribe or micromanage policies, schemes, interventions and pet projects on how to do this, from Whitehall. One example a senior manager gave me was a target to reduce unwanted teenage pregnancies. When I recall some of the media coverage on the issue in decades gone by, it was horrific. And inflamed by too many politicians and religious figures – not least because contraception in the 1990s was still a very taboo subject.

Yet this was a time when there was growing public policy coverage in schemes being piloted all over the country dealing with different social issues – many on the back of the old New Deal for Communities Scheme – which would become another of my policy areas. One of them showed that encouraging girls to stay on in full time education, as well as empowering girls and young women, had a noticeable impact on reducing such pregnancies. It’s a message that is now mainstreamed into public policy today – the Prime Minister mentioned it at the G7 Summit earlier on. But to get the agenda of empowering women took a lot of work and campaigning by a lot of people over decades and longer (such as the Women who made modern Cambridge).

Housing, health, transport

If you’re living in poor standard housing – which affects your health, it will inevitably have an impact on a person’s performance whether in the workplace or in the classroom. It might be the case in some communities that the biggest difference the state can make is to deal with the housing problem – which feels never-ending.

The state of dentistry provision in the UK continues to be an issue – again something that feels never ending. If you live in an economically-deprived area, what are the chances that you’ll have access to NHS dental care? Are you going to be ready for work or ready for study with chronic tooth ache?

Transport – the cuts to bus services during austerity inevitably had an impact on people’s ability to access course providers. It still does. A decade ago when I did a short adult teacher training course at Cambridge Regional College, the bus journey took over an hour each way (with one change – pre-guided bus days) from South Cambridge to North West Cambridge. There were no other local providers. South Cambridge may be full of A-level course providers, but that’s of no use to local residents wanting or needing to access vocational courses that are only provided for on the other side of town, for which public transport access is not good enough.

Childcare provision – and voluntary care generally is another barrier. If an adult learner cannot get childcare, or if there’s no on-site creche, it’s the difference between attending and not attending.

Mental health – inevitably there will be people who did not have a positive experience of their school days. The thought of going back to a built environment that caused them so much hurt can be a barrier in itself. That’s one of the limitations for me about using existing secondary schools as venues for adult education provision. That’s not to say they should not be used. Rather it’s to say that there is a case for hosting such courses, workshops and learning activities either in community venues, or at a larger scale at institutions specially designed for adult learners, with excellent walking, cycling, and public transport access – designed as places where the adult learners would choose to be during the day outside of their timetabled hours.

That’s a massive local public policy challenge

Public policy is complex by its very nature. It’s not a case of putting in some inputs, pulling a lever, and out comes the results.

It’s also something that cannot be micro-managed from a central control room or unit. Frontline community workers at a neighbourhood level, such as GPs, PCSOs, and even convenience store staff can give the sort of insights that are inevitably hidden at macro public policy level. The cliche is that different communities will have different needs. The challenge for the Skills Committee is to identify these and work out what intervention is needed in their policy remit, and what interventions are also needed by committees and organisations far outside of it.

This means telling the NHS Care Commissioning Groups that investing in improved services in specific small towns will have a positive impact on the skills agenda. Or telling district councils where housing improvements might reduce absences due to ill health. Or telling the public transport providers where better planned bus routes would help more people access an institution providing training and courses.

If that level of research has not yet been done, it would be very interesting to see some in-depth commissioned research identifying the multiple needs of a small town in Cambridgeshire, and then following through the improvements and recommendations to see what impact each of the changes that are made actually has. Some of the improvements will be in public service infrastructure. Some of it might involve encouraging private sector employers to locate new premises in a town – or encouraging existing employers to sign up to a new training charter for their staff. Some might involve founding new community institutions, or investing in existing ones to build up civil society.

All of this won’t happen overnight. Which is why – as the new Mayor has said repeatedly, the politicians from political parties will have to work together.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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