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Building bridges: Orchestrating opportunities – the role of LEPs in skills and education

11 April 2014

I have just contributed to a special edition of Adults Learning, which is out today: http://bit.ly/1iAsQ0b and which focuses on the role of LEPs in skills and education. In it, I argue that the primary function of a Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) is to stimulate and nurture economic development across a defined functional economic geography, and that in so doing, as LEPs have grown incrementally into their role over the last four years, taking on a range of related activities requested of them by the coalition government, it is unlikely that many will have failed to grasp the importance of skills and education to successful fulfilment of their core mission.

It was useful therefore to have this view endorsed last week by the Prime Minster himself - no less - at a recent meeting with LEP chairs - and then again this week by the Leader of the Opposition 
in his speech on localism – even though Ed Milband still managed unwittingly to avoid saying the F word – missing out a reference to FE colleges in his key speech….

A number of LEPs, including my own in the SE Midlands (SEMLEP) and a neighbouring LEP in Northamptonshire, have a particular interest in NEETs, with targets for reducing numbers of NEETs in the LEP area by working closely with employers and other agencies towards this goal.

It is also probable that specific targets for reducing the numbers of NEETs and significantly increasing apprenticeship opportunities will be reflected the recently produced Strategic Economic Plans (SEPs) which each of the 39 LEPs has submitted to government. One of the advantages of the local nature of the sphere of influence of a LEP is that it can take a lead on coordinating skills issues, bringing together the key people involved and encouraging them to adopt a shared approach to an agreed local problem – and then to look at creative ways of applying LEP funding streams to local skills needs, as well as using the freedoms and flexibilities offered through the SEP process to explore with the FE colleges ways in which skills can be delivered innovatively in conjunction with local employers.

In SEMLEP we have created a Skills Forum - which is inclusive in its membership and involves a range of adult skills providers including local authorities, NIACE and the WEA - and with whom we have developed a skills plan for our SEP. In addition to this, we brought the FE and sixth form college providers together to form a SE Midlands colleges’ federation - FUSE - to inform the skills plan and align college aspirations and strategic plans with LEP priorities and activities.

By developing local strategies for growth that integrate skills into the wider economic growth agenda and into the mainstream activities of the LEP, the aim is that solutions to the perennial national problem of addressing skills mismatches can be solved at a local level.

I believe there is a greater chance of this occurring where a LEP embraces an ambitious skills agenda and brokers innovative and productive conversations between local employers and local skills providers. One small recent example of this was in Milton Keynes, where in my capacity as Chair of SEMLEP and also a Board member of Homes & Communities Agency, I attended a media visit to publicise the number of new and affordable homes that had been constructed and occupied in the city, and I was able to respond to a request from the Managing Director of a major national house builder to put them in touch with the local FE college. They were building homes so fast they needed to recruit more employees with construction skills and they wanted to offer more apprenticeship opportunities to the local college! Through the existence of the LEPs, conversations like this – informal and formal – can be brokered and local deals made. Anything that helps us all build bridges between the worlds of education and employment - at all levels – has to lead to positive outcomes for us all.