The West Midlands Combined Authority, employers and the claimed ‘skills deficit’: the implications for schools

The WMCA has recently published its Strategic Economic Plan (SEP), ‘Making Our Mark’ (1). It indicates that the Combined Authority and the employers it represents will put pressure on schools in the West Midlands to align themselves more closely to the employers’ ‘skills agenda’. (2)

As the SEP says, “At the heart of the strategy is the drive to accelerate an improvement in productivity…” (p23). It claims that one of the main causes, if not the main cause, is the ‘skills deficit’ (3). And part of the responsibility is assigned to the schools, as this table on p49 is intended to imply (the LEPs are the employers’ Local Enterprise Partnerships):


The SEP makes a number of proposals to address the problem:



Action to raise the skills of the existing workforce and encourage and enable young people to pursue careers in high value manufacturing with action to: …

  • use the scale of the combined authority to secure more and more effective business/school engagement in relation to NME (p38)


Ignite: Schools

A “HS2 Ready” careers inspiration programme delivered from primary. (p46)


Business and schools

Using scale of the combined authority to deliver a “charter for young people” on careers advice and guidance, including work experience, mentoring and teacher placements. (p48)

It is quite likely that these are initial measures which may be followed by more demanding proposals. There are obvious dangers. One is the promotion in schools of an uncritical pro-business agenda. A simple indicator of that is the SEP document itself, which contains in its 57 pages 181 mentions of the word ‘business’ but just one mention of the word ‘union’ , two of ‘equality’ (both referring to health) and no mention at all of the word ‘gender’ or of  ethnicity, democracy or public participation. Another case in point would be the uncritical boosting of HS2 in schools as it is in the SEP itself, ignoring the battery of arguments challenging it. (4)

Another danger is the reinforcement of patterns of social class as employers target ‘lower performing’ schools with very different ‘employability’ messages to those aimed at ‘academic’ students. Class and gender inequality can also be reinforced in other ways; through for example work experience programmes which reproduce inequalities rather than challenge them. (5)

But there are also opportunities here for schools to help children and young people to gain an informed and critical understanding of the world of work and also to develop their own vocational aspirations in positive ways, leading to good jobs – provided it is teachers not employers who set the agenda.

That is why it is essential that teachers and their unions are represented on the WMCA committees that deal with ‘skills’, including the schools dimension.  The Governance Framework of the WMCA (SEP p37) shows that the majority of the WMCA’s bodies include employers’ representatives from the LEPs, including the top-level CA Board, but exclude trade union and employee representatives  (6). A case in point is the ‘Productivity and Skills Commission’ which comprises only Independent Commissioners, Councillors and Advisers, even though it directly affects the unions.

However, there are two relevant working groups particularly relevant to education, the ‘Productivity Working Group’ and the ‘Public Sector Reform: Skills and Employability Troubled Individuals and Criminal Justice Working Group’, that do include places for union and worker representatives. Their composition is as follows:

  • Councillors
  • LEP Representatives
  • Private and Public Sector Specialists
  • Private and Public Sector Advisers
  • Voluntary Sector Representatives
  • Trade Union Representatives
  • Employee Representatives

It is vital for the school unions to be represented on these working groups– while also arguing for representation on other higher-level bodies where strategic decisions are made affecting education and schools.

It would also mean that the school unions could add their voice to those of the other unions who will be making the case, within the structures of the WMCA as well as outside it, for economic and social policies that meet the needs of the citizens of the West Midlands; policies which will be shaping the communities and families whose children they are teaching.

Richard Hatcher

13 October 2016



  2. See Hatcher R (2016) Skilled and ready : what Combined Authorities want from schools’. Forum: for promoting 3-19 comprehensive education 58: 2, 217-231. This article includes an account of Skilled and Ready, which runs an ‘employability’ programme in 42 schools in Greater Manchester, contracted by New Economy, the joint policy arm of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the Greater Manchester LEP. The company began in Birmingham in 2013 under the name of Skills for Birmingham when it was contracted by the local authority to deliver the ill-fated “Birmingham Baccalaureate”. Its founder is Rachel Maclean, a Birmingham business owner, who stood as Conservative candidate in Northfield in the 2015 General Election. Other directors include Gisela Stuart MP and Liam Nolan.
  3. The claims that the principal cause of low productivity is a ‘skills deficit’ are not borne out by data from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills Employer Skills Survey 2015. January 2016. A bigger problem is skills that are under-utilised, as employers themselves admit. The real reason is lack of investment. Birmingham results from Centre for Cities:

 % of employers with staff not fully proficient 15.95%

 % of workers who are not fully proficient 5.1%

 % of employers with hard to fill vacancies 8.48%

 % of employers with hard to fill vacancies due to skills shortages 7.23%

 % of Birmingham employers with staff whose skills are not fully utilised 30.23%

  1. See

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