Greater Manchester Combined Authority: building an integrated skills and work system

Greater Manchester Combined Authority aims to create an integrated education, skills and work system, supporting partners to deliver services and programmes that help people progress in life and in work, enabling businesses and the city to thrive. This case study explains the strengths and challenges of the existing skills and employment system, and what is required to improve outcomes for local residents.

View allEmployment and skills articles

About Greater Manchester Combined Authority

Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) brings together 10 councils: Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wigan, Manchester and Salford, along with an elected mayor. They cover a population of around 2.8 million.

Vision for the local area

Mat Ainsworth, Assistant Director for Education, Skills and Work, said GMCA is striving to achieve an integrated education, skills and work system, and taking a strategic leadership role to help all partners achieve this: 

"We commission services and programmes that help people get on in life and get on in work, and which help businesses and Greater Manchester to thrive,” he explained. 

The phrase ‘systems stewardship’ is increasingly being used to describe GMCA’s role – overseeing the things it directly manages, and bringing partners together around those outside of its direct control.

"For example, when Government brings in an investment programme, we may have no direct levers over how it operates but we can bring together business, stakeholders and partners to try to make it work here," said Mat.

There are four main strands of work: supporting young people to leave education well prepared for work and further study; supporting adults to fulfil their potential; supporting employers, including having a flexible and adaptable education and skills system; and support for residents who are out of work.

Work the combined authority is currently undertaking

GMCA has a huge commissioning role and holds about 100 contracts for adult skills and employment programmes, worth around £170 million a year. The adult education budget, which it has held since 2019, is worth £92 million a year and involves 36 organisations.

A strong focus on work and health predates the devolution deal, and since 2014 GMCA has worked with central government to co-design and commission a devolved equivalent to the national ‘Work and Health’ programme. ‘Working Well’, GMCA’s suite of devolved and test-and-learn employment and health related programmes, takes a whole-population approach to health, skills and employment. To date, these programmes have supported more than 60,000 people, helping more than 15,500 into work.

“We knew from the start that if we wanted to turn Greater Manchester into a ‘northern powerhouse’ we had to tackle the very high level of economic inactivity, and particularly health-related economic inactivity. That was also a key element of the health and social care devolution deal,” explained Mat.

GMCA is doing a lot of work around supporting over-50s to access and stay in work, including a partnership agreement with the Centre for Ageing Better. Another focus is young people’s labour market inequalities, with a new £10 million programme to support ‘hidden NEETS’, young people who are out of work and outside of the system. Social prescribing is also on the agenda: employers are being encouraged to co-invest in social prescribing to help embed it within the local health model.

Opportunities, barriers and potential solutions

GMCA has used the levers at its disposal wherever possible to create a more streamlined and integrated employment and skills system that can respond to individual and employer need. For example, with the devolved ‘Working Well: work and health programme’ budget it was able to obtain ESF match-funding, doubling the pot to £52 million – something that would not otherwise have been possible. Other examples including using local health funds to provide employment support to people with learning disabilities or mental health issues.

“We have been able to commission services that might not have made sense from the point of view of a single investor, but do make sense when you are able to pool budgets. Pooling budgets – or at least aligning budgets – is something that national government would be unable to do, but we can,” said Mat.

What comes down from Government are often pre-defined projects with eligibility criteria, making it difficult to join things up to make a coherent progression pathway for an individual. Being able to co-design projects to deliver the best local response to national policy objectives would create far more effective (and cost-effective) interventions. There is also a lack of joining-up between government departments, and even within the same department, to decide on the best collective approach to achieve an outcome.

A decade of austerity has had a noticeable effect on the capacity of councils, explained Mat:

“That has made GMCA’s systems stewardship role more important – it’s about how we support local authorities in terms of evidence, intelligence and data to inform their decision making, and also to do some of the ‘heavy lifting’ they would have been able to do themselves in the past.

“A large part of what we commission and develop is based on the idea of integration and person-centred approaches, which means that at a local level we need a mechanism to bring together the different agencies in a coherent way. However, pulling partners together and building a system together has got more challenging for our councils as their budgets have become more stretched. Government seems to recognise that integration and joining-up makes sense, but there isn’t necessarily the funding in place to do it."

And as Mat observed, access to information, data and intelligence can also hinder progress: 

“Let’s say there is a high proportion of people on ‘Restart’ with mental health issues. If we know the numbers and locations, we can look at whether we can provide additional local support. But if we’re simply told ‘yes, there are people in Greater Manchester with mental health issues’, that is not useful intelligence.”

The local perspective

Thomas Britton, who leads GMCA’s ‘Working Well’ portfolio of services, said the 10 local authorities play a critical and active role in the design and procurement of the combined authority’s programmes – ensuring that services are fit to meet local needs, and promoting shared ownership across all the localities:

“Councils have continued to locally shape and steer programmes, supporting the local integration of services and ensuring that residents get the right support at the right time.

"The evaluation and learning from these programmes also reflect the important role that local job centres play in ensuring local needs are understood and the right referrals, to the right support, are made. Ultimately, good outcomes start with a good referral. We work closely with Jobcentre Plus to ensure that people can access the right support depending on their broader work, health, skills and life needs."


Matt Ainsworth, Director, Skills - [email protected]

About Work Local

Work Local, is our ambitious, practical vision for devolved and integrated employment and skills provision.

Find out about Work Local