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How The Open University is opening up opportunities in local authorities across England

Local authorities, like most organisations, require a range of skillsets across a diverse workforce.

The Open University (OU) has a long history and rich heritage of providing flexible education around busy working lives, making the OU a great partner. Local authorities often need a range of apprenticeship providers across their services and different levels of education. The OU is often a vital partner, providing distance learning options where travel or family commitments makes traditional face-to-face classroom-based programmes difficult to deliver. This model of delivery has resulted in 190 local authorities working with the OU across apprenticeship and other learning programmes such as degree programmes and short courses in the 2020/21 academic year.

The benefits of apprenticeships in large organisations

Michelle Fitzgerald of Brent Council oversees 27 different programmes varying from level 2 up to level 7, using more than 20 providers.

“We are one of the most diverse London Boroughs,” said Michelle. “We are up and coming and there is a lot of regeneration happening. Our staff are here for the right reasons – to service their local community and apprenticeships help them develop the skills to do that.”

Misha Liddiatt, Young People's Strategy Lead, who works in the Organisational Development team at Somerset County Council said: 

I think it's been fantastic that that we can utilise the apprenticeship levy, which can only be used for apprenticeship qualifications to benefit our workforce. It’s for people of all ages and all levels who can take advantage of apprenticeships.

We've got established relationships with quite a lot of training providers. We can be flexible to the individual’s needs and obviously The Open University offers a completely different service to a local training provider.

Within a council, a lot of apprenticeship standards can be covered because there is such a vast number of job roles, so we have to be adaptable and flexible.

Misha Liddiatt
Young People's Strategy Lead, Organisational Development Team, Somerset County Council

The importance of digital skills

Michelle is a huge advocate of the Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship as a solution to address crucial digital skills challenges.

She said: “We needed to develop digital skills within the Council and this was one of the first programmes I made available. In the tech industry, the private sector are big payers generally, so we need to grow our own talent.

Michelle likes the initial broad scope of the programme and then the opportunity to specialise in the final year. This helps apprentices understand why they are doing projects and the wider outcomes and impacts on other areas.

“Tech is an ever-changing area, so employees have to have the attitude of ‘what do I learn next?’. One example would be cyber security which has been an area that’s grown in importance over the last 10-15 years in local authorities. You have to keep upskilling your workforce.”

Addressing social work challenges

Social work is another key area that local authorities need to find innovative solutions to recruitment and retention challenges.

Ann Smith, Head of Service for Safeguarding, Quality and Practice for Adults at Cornwall Council explained: 

I think there is a social work recruitment issue across the whole of the country and Cornwall is not unique in that. It is difficult to recruit people from external organisations or from across the country because of Cornwall's geography.

A lot of our social workers and particularly our first-tier managers are over the age of 50, so the challenge there for us is not only recruiting to our vacancies, but also doing some succession planning. Working with the OU gave us a considerable amount of flexibility. Traditional university on-site programmes would mean that our social work trainees would have to travel either to Plymouth or Exeter or beyond. The OU gives people that opportunity to study flexibly while remaining in Cornwall while still being able to participate in family life rather than having to move away.

Ann Smith
Head of Service for Safeguarding, Quality and Practice for Adults at Cornwall Council

Like Cornwall Council, Somerset County Council has also utilised the Social Worker Degree Apprenticeship to solve challenges in this area. Misha said: “We've been able to create a really strong cohort of social workers that are committed and loyal to Somerset. This is where they their roots are. They know they where they live and this is where their families are. We've been able to keep them in the county and keep their skills and expertise, which has been fantastic.”

Delivering the management and leadership to drive success

Of course, local authorities are often complex organisations and to deliver improvements and lead teams and projects effectively, management and leadership skills are vital. The OU offers local authorities help in this area through the Senior Leader Apprenticeship and the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship.

The Chartered Manager programme is available to managers within the Council if they've got an interest in development and they want to better themselves professionally and personally. We want our staff feel valued and to offer them these opportunities to upskill themselves and to progress in their chosen field.

One apprentice said to me finding it really beneficial to be able to relate the theory to what she's been doing in her senior role, and it's really strengthened her practice in the workplace. She believes this qualification will give her the confidence to move forward in her next steps.

Misha Liddiatt
Young People's Strategy Lead, Organisational Development Team, Somerset County Council


A bright future

The wide scope of a local authority’s workforce means that there are always opportunities to grow apprenticeship programme. That can be through both extending current programmes or adding new ones into the mix.

Ann explains: “We've learned some lessons in terms of recruiting to our first cohorts. There's some momentum behind this now and the Council is certainly looked looking to invest further.”

Mischa added: “I think there's so much scope for us as a County Council to develop our apprenticeship programme and our ethos has always been to support as much as we can. There is the scope there to support more apprentices and we do see that growing year on year.”


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