Digital service transformation and partnership - Staffordshire County Council

Staffordshire has taken a partnership approach with the eight district councils to identify gaps in government support and local needs and priorities.

The context

Staffordshire County Council (SCC) in the West Midlands covers eight districts including Cannock Chase, East Staffordshire, South Staffordshire, Lichfield, Stafford, Staffordshire Moorlands, and Tamworth.

Staffordshire was in a strong position going into the crisis in terms of a higher employment rate (nearly 80 per cent) and low unemployment, although a lot of jobs were in high-risk sectors such as retail, hospitality, manufacturing, construction, and arts and entertainment.

The following illustrates some of the impact from COVID-19 on the economy (based on the latest data as of March 2021):

  • Overall 2.5 per cent decrease in employment rate, with up to a 10.9 per cent decrease for the 16-24 age range.
  • Claimant rate is double that of the same time last year.
  • Current furlough rate of 14% (January 2021), down from 28.1 per cent in May 2020.

Currently, there are more vacancies reported in the county than pre-pandemic last year, with growth in transportation and distribution, as well as health and care. 

The team

SCC’s employment and skills team employs 36 people focusing on post-16 participation, employability support for groups including NEET and SEND young people, adult community learning, and apprenticeships and technical education. The department commissions most of its adult learning externally but provides some direct services. The team works in partnership with the Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership for the operation of European Social Fund projects and on the Skills Hub , their online platform working with employers and providers to support skills and workforce development.

The response

The team was able to rapidly facilitate shifting the SCC’s adult learning offer online during the first national lockdown recognising there was increased demand for digital services and support. In April 2020, they had moved over 100 courses online, from all classroom and workshop-based provision delivered by their 30+ providers. This enabled them to retain around 80 per cent of their students in learning, primarily made up of people from more disadvantaged groups and adults with disabilities.

Since some course assessments are physical or classroom-based (for example, for assessment for essential digital skills), it has been challenging to find venues where assessments can take place (eg libraries, schools, children’s centres) in the context of changing lockdown restrictions and social distancing. For the beginning of this academic year, some vocational courses have been restructured so that technical and theorical material is front ended, but many providers  are now struggling to find spaces and times for workshop or practical content. Some local colleges are looking at offering extended days or weekend sessions or postponing practical course elements to a later date.

Staffordshire has taken a partnership approach with the eight district councils to identify gaps in government support and local needs and priorities. This includes the Staffordshire Means Back to Business economic recovery and renewal strategy  Staffordshires-Economic-Recovery-and-Renewal-Strategy.pdf  and the Staffordshire Partnership for Employment and Skills, which brings together 40 training delivery partners including further education colleges, universities, private providers, the voluntary sector, and councils.

The key elements of the Staffordshire Means Back to Businesses investments are:

  • Staffordshire Apprentice 500: an incentive grant to businesses to recruit apprentices, which tops up national funding and aims to address the drops in apprenticeship starts over the last few quarters.  It is also seen as a potential pathway for young people completing their Kickstart placement.
  • Skills Hub: a European Social Fund project that offers businesses advice and guidance on workplace training needs and maintains a quality-assured database of training providers. Staffordshire has committed to top up the EU’s 40 per cent contribution to the cost of training so that training is free to microbusinesses. The Skill Hub has had broad take-up across sectors.
  • Business support schemes for businesses starting up or reopening. This has included grants for businesses to procure PPE, and Ignite, a programme designed to help young people start businesses.

The countywide Redundancy Task Force worked with 60 employers representing over 7,000 jobs. By coordinating efforts with the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) and employer teams, Prospects West Midlands, NCS, and Serco, SCC were able to set up a redundancies and recruitment service, which matched redundant staff and vacancies. The initiative has so far worked with 1400 people, with 26 per cent achieving a positive outcome.

The learning

  • Bigger collaborations have enabled SCC to deliver on a larger scale, for example with the Redundancy Task Force, and to make big investments in employment support, such as the Staffordshire Means Back to Business programme. There has been increased willingness to collaborate and work in partnership and on new innovations and services.
  • Pivoting quickly to an online education offer has offered some benefits for adult education learners, including adults with disabilities and those from disadvantaged groups. Learners found positives of this shift to online learning and meeting a much broader range of people, from different areas, than they would have met in the classroom. Online learning also had the benefit of helping to develop learners’ digital skills regardless of the subject matter of their course.
  • SCC has offered a blended approach through their providers (alternating between digital and in-person instruction period) and have seen learner numbers return to close to normal. Going forward, SCC has invested in a digital curriculum manager and in devices for students to access online learning.

In hindsight

The pandemic has created a willingness to experiment with new ideas and programmes but with less certainty about the probability of success.  These developments are at an early stage and although providers have fed back that the incentives offered to employers to take on apprenticeships and training would be popular it is too early to tell whether they will make a difference.  However, even if all initiatives are not successful, this approach to test and learn will help SCC gain additional information about gaps in their provision or the wider employment support ecosystem.

The future

There is uncertainty about the future because of the unknown long-term impact of furlough extensions and boost of temporary jobs in vaccination and testing. While some trends in digital remote working and online shopping are likely to remain it is too early to understand the impact on business. SCC anticipates that upcoming issues will be unemployment and reduced hours, as well as people taking lower-skilled jobs with flexible contracts or zero hours, leading to income variability and potential in-work poverty.  They had identified the over-50s as a group needing support pre COVID-19 and expect that they will need to also have a focus on helping older workers retrain.

SCC anticipates there will be a need for a support offer for retraining or upskilling for people who are in work.  Now that the service has a digital offer this may help people access training who may not have had the time to take and travel to courses. There is also an opportunity to develop more online learning content for post-16s and Level 2 and Level 3 and create flexible learning offers across the system.


Anthony Baines

Assistant Director for Skills & Employability