With new powers over the Adult Education Budget, London’s Mayor has an increasing influence over education and training. What are the big tasks for City Hall over the next mayoralty?
Education is generally not a prominent theme of London mayoral campaigns, and so far this election is following the rule, with crime and housing taking the limelight. Judging from the candidates’ campaigns so far, the challengers for London’s top job don’t seem to have much to reproach the Mayor about on schools or adult education.
Perhaps this is because London seems to be doing fine: school exam results are better now than anytime in parents’ living memory, and the city is home to some of the world’s leading universities, and a highly qualified workforce.
Or perhaps this is because the Mayor could hardly be held responsible for something they have little power to change: when it comes to education, central government holds the cards.
Neither of those things are completely true though.
First, scratch the veneer of table-topping schools and world-renowned universities, and one finds that challenges as profound as equality of opportunity, youth crime, automation and progression at work either stem from, or could be tackled by, our education and training system. It is worrying that one in three young Londoners does not have a Level 3 qualification (A-levels or equivalent) at age 19. These Londoners will have to compete in the capital’s tough labour market, where most sectors are heavily dominated by university graduates. And to many, London’s high rate of youth crime is strong evidence that the school system fails groups of young people.
Then there is the role of education and training in tackling sluggish productivity growth, and responding to the fallout of Brexit, which we know will be on the next Mayor’s in-tray. London’s low maternal employment rate – the lowest in the country – alone signals that early years and after school care provision is insufficient.
Whether the Mayor can actually tinker with education and training is also changing.
Until recently, the Mayor of London did not have formal powers over education. Instead they acted through campaigns, taskforces, or philanthropic activity. For example, Boris Johnson created the Mayor’s Fund, which offers grants to projects supporting disadvantaged young people into learning, and Sadiq Khan campaigned to increase teacher retention, and set up a team to nudge London businesses into spending their apprenticeship levy. The closest to an education budget that Mayors oversee is spending by the London Economic Action Partnership, which distributes some government grants for economic growth. Sadiq Khan has used some of these grants for college infrastructure upgrades.
But as of this academic year, the Mayor manages the London portion of the Adult Education Budget. The Budget brings together funds for “non-apprenticeship learning” (courses outside the government’s apprenticeship framework), “community learning” (spanning language, work preparation or arts courses) and “learner support”, which can cover the costs of attending courses such as childcare or transport. Most of these courses are provided by colleges and local authorities.
This newly introduced mayoral control will be an opportunity to tailor provision to needs of Londoners, however there are three limits on the Mayor’s ability to act.
First, the Mayor inherited a budget that’s been cut to the bone. Adult education spending was £4.5bn for England in 2010, by 2019 it was £1.4bn – a 75 per cent reduction in 2019 prices. To make up for this gap, large employers are now required to fund training for their staff, through an ‘apprenticeship levy’, which was worth £2.4bn last year. But it is employers who decide on which courses to spend the levy, and unspent funds are transferred to government, not the mayor. Given the Adult Education Budget is meagre, it is mostly spent on ‘statutory entitlements’ for young adults who don’t have a Level 3 qualification, so they can obtain one, or English language courses for people who are out of work. Depending on the take up of these entitlements, the Mayor may not have much discretion left with respect to spending the budget.
Second, the Adult Education Budget really is a tiny piece of the public education funding pie – £1.4bn of about £88bn for the UK. Pre-school, primary and secondary education are funded and regulated by government, and the same goes for most of tertiary education, though costs are partly covered by student fees.
Finally, the Mayor currently distributes the European Social Fund for investment in education projects, worth one fifth of the London portion of the Adult Education Budget. These will end in 2020, and the government has proposed a ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ to make up for that loss. But whether London will get its share, and the power to manage it, will be key to the Mayor’s ability to act.
In the past, London Mayors have used their position as a bully pulpit to create change, even with little control over budgets. To make a mark on the capital’s education system, there are two things the next Mayor could, and should do on education and training:
- They’ll need to show that they can spend the Adult Education Budget more effectively than government would have. This will mean driving up course quality and increasing demand for lifelong learning. One of the puzzling facts of the last years is that, despite cuts, budgets allocated to adult education have been underspent. As part of their takeover of the budget, the Mayor should campaign to increase take up, and therefore make the case for additional funding to be channelled towards adult learning.
- The Mayor should produce a plan to tackle the impact of disadvantage in London schools, as an indispensable measure to combat youth crime. The plan should include a better childcare offer, to give parents better access to learning opportunities and career development. This plan should also propose that the Mayor play a role in regulating the school system, which is increasingly fragmented as academies are largely self-governing. For example, the Mayor could be setting policies with respect to admissions and exclusions, and increase support for schools where a greater proportion of children are likely to be left behind due to their social or ethnic background.
Both of these things will be difficult, but the next Mayor of London may well benefit from strong tailwinds. With government focusing on local industrial strategies and economic fairness, there should be new interest (and funding) into our education and training infrastructure. And dealing with Brexit-induced skills shortages will no doubt make this agenda a more pressing one.