Greater Manchester’s post-16 education system is broken and Andy Burnham wants to take control of it

The UK is producing far more hairdressers than it really needs, former government minister Lord David Sainsbury told an audience at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester this week. Not just a few more, but something like 50% more hairdressers than our economy needs.

And at the same time, the lack of skilled workers in the technical fields prized by industry deters large companies from investing in cities like Manchester. There are some 11,500 vacancies in digital jobs in Greater Manchester and 54% of employers in the area cannot fill their vacancies.

Clearly, something is wrong with the way the city’s education system equips young people with the skills they need for the world of work, with many colleges of higher education (FE) equipping them with qualifications the employers don’t need it and that don’t serve the larger interests of the city.

The question is what to do about it. And at the Science and Industry Museum event, there were growing calls for the central government to hand over control of the entire post-16 education system to local leaders like the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham.

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The calls were led by Mr Burnham himself, who revealed that in his forthcoming talks with Tory Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove he would be playing for his city authority and not Whitehall to decide which college and sixth form students of Greater Manchester are encouraged to. study and what gets funding.

He is one of two Metro mayors – along with Andy Street in the West Midlands – set to start talks on a ‘pioneering’ devolution deal potentially giving him powers beyond any other local leader outside from London.

Control of Greater Manchester’s 98 stations and the possibility of stripping bad owners of public funds from the benefit system are also on his shopping list, he told the conference organized by the Center for Cities think tank. .

He will argue that the current arrangements “don’t serve us well and they don’t allow this place to realize its full potential or it doesn’t allow our people to realize their full potential.”

A graphic showing Andy Burnham’s wish list in his upcoming devolution talks with Upgrade Secretary Michael Gove

And he said a prime example was technical education, preparing students for jobs involving applied science and the kind of modern technology Manchester leaders have at the heart of their vision for the city’s future. .

Boris Johnson says creating an economy based on high-skilled jobs is at the heart of his plan to level the country. In February, as he launched his long-awaited Leveling Up white paper, he visited Hopwood Hall College in Middleton, a 6,500 square meter site where learners take courses such as engineering, manufacturing and construction. .

But Mr Burnham told his audience that technical education had ‘always been the poor cousin of Whitehall, whatever people say, it’s never been done right’.

He added: “It’s never really been employer-focused at this level like it should be.

“It’s a real risk for us going forward because I won’t be able to look those potential investors in the eye and say we can guarantee you that pipeline of talent in your tech company or in your green energy company. , and that’s a problem.

“So we will be making the case for controlling post-16 education, let me put it bluntly. Because our industrial base is different to the West Midlands, if we can then develop a skills system to support that industrial base and these strengths, as identified by the Greater Manchester Industrial Strategy, it must follow that if you accept the need for a local industrial strategy, you must accept the need for a qualified local strategy to support it .”

The sentiment was supported this week by a report from the University of Salford and the Lifelong Education Commission, which argued that reversing the decline in higher technical education (HTE) provision in England could help improve and address key skills shortages in the North.

His research found that training courses offering more practical skills for the workplace are in rapid decline. Over the past 5 years, learner enrollment in HTE courses has dropped by 25%, while completion of full degrees has increased by 8% over the same period.

At the same time, all regions of England have a significant number of businesses with vacancies with skills shortages. And in the North West, more than 35% of all job vacancies are due to skills shortages, according to employers.

Professor Helen Marshall, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Salford, said the decline was due to the fact that since Tony Blair’s premiership in the 1990s teenagers have been pushed into college rather than towards vocational qualifications.

But such a drift is worrying for several reasons. To give a concrete example, she explained on The Northern Agenda podcast how the switch from diesel and petrol engines in cars to electric and hydrogen in the next few years will mean that the skills of most of our current mechanics will become obsolete.

Hear Helen Marshall’s thoughts on The Northern Agenda podcast

She said, “So what’s going to happen to all these auto mechanics? Are we going to tell them all, ‘Well, you’re out of work, get out of here’? Or are we going to requalify them and perfect them? And if we don’t, where are we going to find the engineers to support and maintain our electric and hydrogen vehicles.”

She described the problem as “not a future problem” but “a here and now problem” that even affected her own university.

“We hired someone about nine months ago in cybersecurity,” she said. “Six months in an American organization offered him a significantly higher salary, and he left. So it becomes like a football transfer market, not only for universities, but also for people in industrial jobs. .”

Prof Marshall backed Andy Burnham’s call for greater local government and said the government should “be more confident in districts like Greater Manchester” as its labor market needs would likely be different from those of Birmingham or Bristol.

Manchester Museum of Science and Industry
Manchester Museum of Science and Industry

In his speech at the Center for Cities, Lord Sainsbury, who was Minister for Labor Science and Innovation between 1998 and 2006, said Manchester was still recovering from the damage inflicted by the decline of its traditional industries in the 20th century .

As a result, the city is still underperforming nationally in terms of value added per capita – gross value added per capita in 2019 was £32 per hour, compared to the national average of £35 per hour.

One of the main problems, he said, is that higher education institutions have been “severely underfunded” and forced to offer cheap and popular courses – like hairdressing – rather than those that profit to the local economy.

Another problem was the wide range of qualifications available to students, with employers often struggling to determine which ones were worthwhile. But he said that issue was now being addressed as the government had created a national qualification system, with standards set by the government and based on what industry said it needed.

Manchester's skyline is filled with skyscrapers, but do the kids of Rochdale and Oldham know how to get the jobs they have?
Manchester’s skyline is filled with skyscrapers, but do the kids of Rochdale and Oldham know how to get the jobs they have?

But he said to prevent colleges from churning out graduates that businesses can’t employ, metro mayors should be responsible for course coordination and take responsibility for funding the National Education Funding Agency. and skills.

Despite the runaway success of Manchester city center in recent years and the skyscrapers that now dominate the skyline, Andy Burnham said he fears many children and parents across the region don’t know how to get the jobs. who could possibly get them there.

“I speak as a parent myself and I don’t know what’s available in this downtown area today,” he said. “These skyscrapers, it’s an argument of the Treasury, they financed this fund which partially released this property. But what’s going on inside?

“If I’m a kid growing up in East Manchester or Oldham or Rochdale, I think they look at it, and they just don’t know, right, they can’t see a way of where they are. And that’s something we have to solve. And I think that’s the challenge for us.

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