James Palmer is the directly elected Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
With the creation of the Combined Authority in 2017 and the devolving of power, a budget for Adult Education initially seemed a surprising addition coming alongside our primary responsibilities of Transport and Housing. Unlike secondary level education or post-16 skills, the adult education budget had not been a famous topic for national discussion. However, in the short two years I have been Mayor of Peterborough and Cambridgeshire, the skills agenda has increased the pace of progress more rapidly than anyone had previously anticipated.
Being given a budget of £11.3 million, we were keen to cut the red tape attached to Adult Education as soon possible. The previously centralised direction of spending was unimaginative to say the least. Time and money were being spent on ‘leisure and pleasure’ courses such as basket weaving, bridge playing, and language teaching – prepping people for their holidays. Not only that, but these were being used largely by people already equipped with high-level qualifications; that is not the priority of a budget for Adult Education and it has taken the creation of further devolved government to recognise this and to bring immediate change. Of course, there will always be a welcome role for community learning as it does much to tackle social isolation for the elderly – and yet the balance of this with skills is something that needed immediate revision.
This September will be the first year that the Combined Authority will be delivering a revitalised budget. The last two years have been spent working with the educational providers and hearing from local businesses to ascertain the demand of skills required in our job-laden area. As a result, we are placing a far greater emphasis on those with lower level qualifications and on courses that meet the skills needs of the area. Running closely alongside our work for Adult Education has been the development of our Local Industrial Strategy in which we see education playing a key role. In pooling two separate spheres of research, we have chosen educational courses that will actually enable students to get on and grow in skills, confidence, and ability; thereby improving the spread of employment throughout the area.
Previously, the Whitehall approach placed a large onus on getting ‘bums on seats’, regardless of what course or what qualification the students were entering in on. With our new approach, we are able to ensure that this budget is benefiting those with little or no qualifications first and foremost.
This again signals the wonder of devolution. As here in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough our economic backdrop contains a mixture of agri-tech, manufacturing, and engineering companies requiring more skilled workers. Whereas in Andy Burnham’s region of Greater Manchester, the skills needed will no doubt be different from ours and in Andy Street’s West Midlands, different again. Regardless of the differences, we can now be more confident that local people relying on these services will be provided with the opportunities to get on in life, right where they are.
My driving vision is to ensure that more people across my region can benefit from the strong economic growth that is taking place across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. In focusing our budget with a localised view, areas such as Fenland are seeing record amounts of spending on the Adult Education services.
Building on our new approach to adult education, our programme to provide additional skills is being continued with the creation of the University of Peterborough – a uniquely technical and skills based university that will serve the needs of the local economy. With this skills based university, we are wanting to do something completely new. To enable this, we have been working closely with the business community of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire and the surrounding areas where the need for skills-based work is high. We carried out a survey of local businesses to help us shape the University’s curriculum and over 60 per cent of local businesses who were contacted responded, demonstrating the clear appetite and support from local business to this kind of approach to higher education.
Those that will attend Peterborough University will have an opportunity to undertake a vocational course whilst also gaining the socially developmental experience of studying at university. Many young people today are weighing up the cost benefits of a university education as the cost of tuition fees can be off-putting for many; this project can be used to encourage further education that is future focussed and vocationally driven. By tailoring the courses to the needs of the local economy, the skills demanded by local employers can be met in a self-sustaining fashion, thereby furthering the economic success of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
Degree apprenticeships will be based upon training students for the needs of prominent local businesses such as agricultural technology. Resultantly, the supply demands of businesses and services in the area can be met by those local to them; as well as attracting others to enter in to work in the area.This will help our young people into well-paid secure jobs fit for the rapidly evolving 21st Century workplace. The university is on course to open in September 2022 to its first 2,000 students on the embankment site in what is planned to be an iconic building for Peterborough.
By continuing to streamline the Adult Education budget and making a success of the University of Peterborough project, I believe a strong case can be made for further devolution of Education. This could pave the way to see the overall transformation to regional Education that people in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough have been longing for. In order to unleash the potential of this area we will continue to focus on stream-lining Adult Education, building momentum for the inclusion of post-16 skills.