Why do metro mayors want control of education? Levelling up and the regional skills gap explained

With more than twice as many people with no qualifications in some parts of the country compared to others, here’s why skills and education are vital parts of the levelling up debate.

One in 12 people in the UK have no formal qualifications - but some regions lag far behind others
One in 12 people in the UK have no formal qualifications - but some regions lag far behind others

The Government is facing calls to devolve Further Education budgets and control to regional mayors to help them level up the country long term.

Centre for Cities, a pro-devolution think tank, says education should be a key area for devolution if the Government is serious about levelling up, along with transport, spatial planning and research and development spending.

This would allow directly-elected mayors control over the courses offered, so they can work with local businesses to fill skills gaps for high wage industries.

And with vast regional inequalities in the share of the workforce with no skills or qualifications, the think tank says improving education is vital to boost employment levels in poorer areas.

So what is the skills gap, and which regions come up short?

How bad is the skills gap?

About one in every 12 people aged between 16 and 64 in the UK has no formal qualifications.

Office for National Statistics figures for 2020 show 33% of people have at least a degree or equivalent, 22% have A levels or an equivalent qualification, and 21% have an A* to C grade GCSE or equivalent.

A further 8% are currently in higher education and 8% have other qualifications, while 8% have no qualifications at all.

But there are vast differences across the regions, with two-and-a-half times as many unqualified people living in the worst performing area compared to the best.

In Northern Ireland, one in seven (14%) people have no qualifications, as do one in 10 people in the West Midlands and Scotland.

That is compared to around one in 20 in the South West (5%) and South East (6%).

The proportion of people with no qualifications in each region is as follows:

Northern Ireland 13.8%
West Midlands


Scotland 10.0%
North East 9.6%
North West 8.9%
Yorkshire and the Humber 8.7%
Wales 8.7%
East Midlands 7.5%
East of England 7.3%
London 6.8%
South East 5.9%
South West 5.4%

What is the effect on wages?

Generally speaking, the regions with the lowest proportion of unqualified workers see a payout in higher average earnings.

Unsurprisingly, the highest earners in the UK live in London, where workers are paid an average of £588.60 per week, according to ONS data.

That is £76.90 more than the second-highest paid group, which can be found in the South East.

The worst paid workers – those in Northern Ireland – earn £156.30 less than in the capital, at just £423.30 per week. Workers in the North East are not far behind, with takings of £435.80.

The South West is a noticeable anomaly when comparing earnings with skills. Despite having the lowest proportion of people with no qualifications (5.4%), its residents also have among the lowest earnings (£440.80). This could mean workers are overqualified for the jobs that are available there.

The relationship between skills and earnings gets stronger when looking only at degrees or their equivalents.

London has by far and away the most graduates (48% of 16 to 64 year olds). The South East, Scotland and East of England take the second, fourth and fifth spots for graduates and are also in the top five earners.

The South West is again an outlier, with the third highest number of graduates despite its poor salaries.

These figures all use the median earnings, a measure of the average that takes the middle point so very high or very low earners do not skew the figures.

When looking at mean earnings – the sum of all earnings divided by the number of employees – a concentration of very high earners in the capital means the gap between the worst and best paid widens.

The mean wage in London is £890.40 per week, whereas workers in Northern Ireland get £611.70 – a gap of almost £280.

The median weekly pay in each region is as follows:

London £588.60
South East £511.70
East of England £494.90
Scotland £486.70
East Midlands £460.00
West Midlands £459.50
North West £457.60
Wales £447.80
Yorkshire and the Humber £440.90
South West £440.80
North East £435.80
Northern Ireland £432.30

Do people have the right kind of skills?

A recent Centre for Cities report called for the Government to devolve more powers over Further Education to metropolitan mayors.

Founder Lord Sainsbury said this would allow local leaders to ensure courses offered match the needs of high-skill industries in their area – rather than colleges competing to offer popular, cheap to run courses that leave learners with “little currency in the local jobs market”.

“We give an enormous number of courses on hairdressing in this country – far beyond anything we need – because it’s a nice thing to do if you’re a young person,” Lord Sainsbury said at a recent Centre for Cities event.

“It’s very unfair on them to get them to do these courses and then put them on the labour market where these qualifications don’t help them at all.”

West Midlands mayor Andy Street told NationalWorld that skills and education are “a much under-represented part of the levelling up debate” – despite being the long-term way to level up the regions.

“We don’t have the same level of powers on education as with transport, but we have our adult education budget and we have other budgets we work with colleges on,” he said.

“We’re using that to make sure that citizens here are getting the skills that are going to be needed for the growth areas of the economy.”

A Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said giving people the skills to succeed is the best way to improve people’s life chances.

“The Government is transforming Further Education, encouraging lifelong learning through the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, and building an apprenticeships revolution,” they added.

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