The focus of skills provision in your area is changing – NHS organisations should act now to see how this affects the future supply of staff, says Michael Wood

While integrating the health system as part of wider public service reform may prove a challenge too far for some emerging devolution deals in England, there are 1.3 million reasons why we shouldn’t lose interest.

Reading through the combined authority plans already agreed, and the many more still in the pipeline, it is clear that one of the early areas of common focus for the devolution lens is that of local skills provision. As one of, if not the, biggest employer in any given locality this is our chance to exert real influence.

In July 2015 the government announced a major review of post-16 education and training institutions. It aims to ensure that England has financially stable, high quality institutions with the right capacity to meet the needs of students and employers in each area.

The wording in the review is clear – in future the Further Education sector in England will have fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers. There will be greater specialisation, with centres of expertise focusing on a particular area and supporting progression up to a high level in professional and technical disciplines.

In our experience, colleagues in the health sector have a mixed level of confidence in the ability of their local further education providers to supply a fit-for-purpose future workforce

The review is being carried out by the Departments for Education and Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) through a series of area reviews, running until 2017 and covering the whole of England. The reviews are taking place in five ‘waves’, from September 2015 to March 2017. Timescales for each individual review will vary depending on the area though typically they last around four to six months.

Employability driving education

While this all sounds run of the mill, it is in fact one of the first opportunities to see how localism and strategic working across the new Combined Authority footprints will affect what has generally been a national responsibility.

Indeed it is the review’s focus on how professional and technical disciplines are chosen that is particularly interesting. This isn’t learner or institution-led learning, rather it is an attempt to ensure that local skills provision is specifically tailored to the local growth context. In other words, local skills provision in the future will be focused on that geographic area’s priority growth sectors.

The 39 local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) in England – tasked with driving jobs and growth across a local economy – have an important role in the area reviews. They are not just there to reflect strongly the local voice of employers but will also, along with the Combined Authorities, be responsible for directing the associated funding. Geographic coverage of the reviews is also largely based on existing LEP boundaries, where there isn’t yet an outline combined authority.

Key to any area review will be the evidence base gathered. A full local data analysis will look at current and future economic priorities for the area, as well as employers’ skills needs, progression routes for young people that align with local economic needs and priorities, and of course demographic changes. All these matter for NHS employers.

Why get involved?

In our experience, colleagues in the health sector have a mixed level of confidence in the ability of their local further education providers to supply a fit-for-purpose future workforce. Ongoing difficulties in recruitment and retention, along with the announcements amongst other things of the apprenticeship levy and the care certificate, mean that this relationship may be more important than ever in the coming years.

These priority sectors will be the pillars that uphold your local devolution proposal. Connect the dots and the importance of influencing combined authorities and LEPs suddenly gathers pace

These area reviews give the NHS an opportunity, perhaps the best opportunity for the foreseeable future, as a large employer to influence which education providers locally specialise in health and care and to what extent.

The reviews may be relatively narrow in scope but the wider agenda is becoming clearer. The focus on skills and education in your local area will be decided based on future employability. Future employability in turn will be determined by the locally chosen priority sectors for investment. These priority sectors will be the pillars that uphold your local devolution proposal. Connect the dots and the importance of influencing combined authorities and LEPs suddenly gathers pace.

It is especially worth noting that the other high value employment sectors in your locality will most likely already be looking to influence these reviews. These other sectors are of course our competitors for local talent or, in in the case of social care, potential partners.

We have spoken to some of the local leaders of the area reviews and the scale of change they are looking at is considerable. The good news is that they recognise our influence locally - they want our data, our thoughts and our voice to help them affect change. Speak to your LEP or to local authority colleagues to find out more, or get in touch at Michael.wood@nhsconfed.org.

Michael Wood is NHS local growth adviser at the NHS Confederation. Follow him at: @NHSLocalGrowth