Experiences of employment and skills devolution: West Yorkshire Combined Authority

The combined authority would like to see devolution across the whole of employment and skills, in order to join up support and avoid duplication.


The West Yorkshire Combined Authority covers the areas of Leeds, Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees and Wakefield with a population of 2.52 million people. It is also the administrative function of Leeds City Region LEP. As a Combined Authority it also works beyond its primary districts with partner authorities as there is a large travel to work area.

The Combined Authority covers several core cities, of which Leeds has the largest economy. West Yorkshire also has extensive pockets of acute deprivation. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the employment rate across the Combined Authority was 73%, just over two percentage points lower than the national rate. One fifth of the neighbourhoods in the Leeds City Region area are in the most deprived 10% nationally. More than three-quarters of City Region neighbourhoods that fall within the most deprived overall are also classed among the most deprived 10% in terms of education, skills and training.

The West Yorkshire economy features key sectors such as health, financial and professional services, manufacturing and logistics, alongside specialisms with clear growth potential such as digital, health tech, screen content and broadcasting. Within its forthcoming Local Industrial Strategy,the Combined Authority explores the need to provide business support based on positive employer behaviours, focusing initially on indicators from BEIS’ business productivity review and the Combined Authority’s own policies regarding inclusive growth.

Despite the opportunities, the area has relatively low productivity and skills, and there is an under-representation of jobs in the highest skilled sectors. The number of adults with qualifications at level 2 is lower than the national average, as is the number of adults with qualifications at level 4+. Almost a quarter (24%) of jobs in the City Region pay less than the living wage. In Kirklees, this rises to 28%. The Combined Authority is keen to reduce this gap as well as reducing geographical inequalities in qualification distribution (Bradford and Wakefield in particular suffer from skills deprivation).

The Further Education (FE) colleges in the area have created the West Yorkshire Consortium of Colleges to bid for funding. This collegiate approach is a key factor in the origin of the Delivery Agreements discussed in this case study.  


Approaches

The wider geography of the Combined Authority can offer value to the constituent local authorities, for example though connecting individuals with jobs that are not in their neighbourhoods.

West Yorkshire has secured a devolution deal that should increase its levers to deliver change, however its convening role up until this point is seen by them as an important one, for example in apprenticeships where it connects levy payers with SMEs to support transfers that benefit the local economy.

ESF funding is a key lever for shaping skills programmes locally. As part of its administration function of the Leeds City Region LEP, the Combined Authority has used Labour Market Intelligence and partnership sounding groups to shape local rounds, and contribute to national thinking on the shape of the forthcoming UKSPF. The Combined Authority has used labour market information to inform the thinking of providers beyond programmes it funds. Its research and intelligence team creates an annual labour market analysis report which is shared with stakeholders through a series of workshops. Its infrastructure for sharing best practice through communication and networks includes a Skills Network which comprises Independent Training Providers, VSCOs ,  FE Colleges, Universities and wider stakeholders, and a forum with Local Authority Employment and Skills officers. Both meet quarterly and feed into the Employment and Skills Panel.

The Employment and Skills Panel, which acts as the Skills Advisory Panel, identifies priorities, including raising skills levels, increasing apprenticeships, connecting business to education, and linking people with jobs.


Policy changes

Delivery Agreements

Delivery agreements were implemented in 2017. They were developed and published for each of the seven FE colleges within the Combined Authority. These set out measurable and individualised expectations of each College’s educational delivery plans, which are developed by the Colleges themselves to respond to economic need and skills priorities, and supported by the Combined Authority.

Delivery Agreements are designed to influence a  range of college provision, particularly apprenticehipsstrengthening broader relationships with providers and influencing the curriculum to meet the needs of businesses and individuals, as well as being linked to the region’s economic performance.

The Combined Authority argue that Delivery Agreements will provide a good foundation to prepare for the anticipated devolution of the Adult Education Budget (AEB), clearly demonstrating a partnership approach to developing a responsive skills offer in the region.  Delivery Agreements include identified actions, and the annual reviews enable FE colleges to identify the support they need as well as requiring them to be responsive to requests for specific skills delivery. The Combined Authority argues that the relationship between the FE colleges and local authorities has been strengthened by a Combined Authority-wide response.

For the Combined Authority, Delivery Agreements provide “a great opportunity for us to influence the curriculum to meet the needs of employers and economy”. The colleges in the Combined Authority have undertaken a curriculum review based on the labour market analysis provided. This link with local economic performance has led, for example, to the development of a biomedical pathway, focused on health-tech staffing challenges that are identified as potentially occurring in the future. Delivery Agreements cover 16-18 and adult provision, including  apprenticeship and higher level starts.

The use of data and monitoring across the Combined Authority has meant it is able to see and question what is working and what is not. An example of this is the low take-up of digital apprenticeships, despite it being a thriving sector in the region. The Combined Authority, providers and employer groups identified a mismatch between apprenticeship standards, which were separated by digital skillsets (for example software developing, networking and marketing and design), and the needs of SME employers, which make up the bulk of employers in this sector. These employers require employees in digital roles to be able to fulfil all of these skillsets at Level 3. . As part of the recent devolution deal, West Yorkshire will establish a Local Digital Skills Partnership to tackle the shortage of digital skills in the region. 

The Combined Authority now aims to better link Delivery Agreements and capital investment, so that a curriculum change or output is identified upfront from capital investments where appropriate. It is reviewing Delivery Agreements, and is considering how to include a new metric on careers that  assesses how career information is being accessed and used. As a result of last year’s review, the Combined Authority’s FutureGoals careers site has been expanded to be an ‘all age’ site, providing support to adults studying in colleges.

Having access to accurate data has made a big difference. The Combined Authority reports that previously there were significant time lags between information produced by the Education and Skills Funding Agency through the Data Cube, and that reported locally by colleges, which made it difficult to reconcile. Producing this level of information is reliant on a sufficiently-resourced research and intelligence team.

The Combined Authority found that Delivery Agreements gave local authorities a better understanding ofwhat was being delivered in its area, facilitating discussions around future need and progression. The Combined Authority’s next step is to consider how to broaden Delivery Agreements to the wider skills sector as it takes on the management of the Adult Education Budget.


Lessons learned

Build mechanisms that support your approach

The Combined Authority views Delivery Agreements as a tangible sign of its partnership approach and an illustration of their ability to influence delivery and change. It argues this should provide a solid platform for future devolution, including of AEB. 

Build links between the local and regional, and value both

West Yorkshire is aware that sometimes it is better to work at local authority level. The £9m ESF-funded Employment Hub is a good example of this. Through a partnership approach and hub and spoke model each local authority delivers local employment support to indviduals and businesses that is complementary to other localised activity.  The programme, which has a centralised shared aim, ambitions and targets allows each local authority to deliver the programme at local authority level to ensure it respondsto local need. This model allows them to do so, while the Combined Authority provides a regional and cross-geography approach and coordination.

Wider devolution and close working with central government best enables the most joined up approach

The Combined Authority would like to see devolution across the whole of employment and skills, in order to join up support and avoid duplication. However, even with fuller devolution there will still always be nationally run or driven programmes. West Yorkshire is also interested in looking cross-sector, for example at the benefits from working more closely with colleagues from health departments. This highlights the need for close working with central government and a range of public services.