It is still all about People, Poverty and Places

It is still all about People, Poverty and Places

Things change but nothing really changes.  Caroline Masundire reflects on ten years at Rocket Science and the uncertain future for employment and skills.

I celebrate ten years at Rocket Science next month and never has a decade gone so quickly or been as eventful.

One of my interviews took place in Birmingham, during the 2007 Welfare to Work Convention run by CESI (now the Learning and Work Institute). An annual all-singing, all-dancing affair, where the great and good assemble to debate all things employment, skills and welfare.

Those were the days. A big exhibition, too much choice and little time to attend sessions, announcements such as City Strategies trialing local control over employment programmes (sound familiar?) and a bit of a knees up.

It was a time where there was a lot of cash around, new policies and programmes were being created, but we were also on the precipice of the Great Recession of the noughties. Work was the answer to everything – better mental health and wellbeing, a route out of poverty and key to local growth and prosperity. Regions played a key role in economic regeneration, new technologies, like Linkedin, were starting to connect people and networks and the idea of leaving the European Union was unthinkable.

But 2007 also presaged a time of great shakeup in the employment and skills sector. Outsourcing firms and new market entrants from the US and Australia were eyeing up the DWP contracting prize. The Freud and Leitch reports called for radical change and benefit reform was a growing twinkle in Iain Duncan-Smith’s eye.

So how much has changed in the past ten years?

I attended this year’s convention at the Oval earlier this month, the first I had been to for several years. The exhibition was much smaller and I could count the “outsourcers and new market entrants” on less than one hand – gone were the flashy stands, googly-eyed freebies and neckerchiefs. This, alongside the general mood of the convention, was a clear indication that the sector continues to experience shakeup:

  • Less money is being invested in national programmes and what is left locally will disappear in 2019. There is little assurance of what will replace ESF post Brexit.
  • This, alongside apprenticeship and skills funding reform, has forced provider consolidation and reform, with many redundancies in the sector.
  • Getting someone a job is just not good enough anymore. The cost of housing, Universal Credit and insecure work means that we have to prepare people better to manage this insecurity and build their financial resilience. Work is no longer a route out of poverty.
  • Despite investment into skills and education we are not making the real progress we need to compete in the global economy.

Many people I spoke to feared a policy vacuum for employment and skills over the next couple of years as the Government focuses its efforts on Brexit negotiations. Devolution in many places is taking its time and we might not see real change for several years. Work Local, the Local Government Agency vision for employment and skills devolution is a common-sense approach. But this sets the scene for 2021.

What does this mean for the sector?

Addressing in-work poverty is the next big thing and we have to ensure that investment in getting people back to work, focuses on poverty reduction. Our relationship with clients and employers will need to change as will our services and offer.

Despite policies and funding, it will be up to local organisations to take control over how to make the most of what is happening in their area. They will need to really understand what will make their place resilient in a post-Brexit world. And start to put in place plans and structures.

Most reassuring from the Convention was the passion and commitment of organisations working on the front-line. Despite such challenges and change, this passion has not waned and many of the organisations that were helping people back to work in 2007, are still here – ten years on. This collective experience and passion is the sector’s greatest asset.

Governments, Ministers, policies and funding come and go. So the greatest lesson I have learnt from the passing of ten years, is that employment and skills has, and always will be about People, Poverty and Places.

Caroline is an Associate Director at Rocket Science based in our London office.  You can check out her profile here.

What could Sadiq Khan do for BIDs in London?

What could Sadiq Khan do for BIDs in London?

Why we need to carry on supporting the BID movement in London. John Griffiths offers his thoughts for the Mayor for London.

One of Boris Johnson’s final acts as Mayor of London was to announce he had achieved his 2012 manifesto target of seeing 50 Business Improvement Districts set up in the capital. London’s reaching 50 BIDs (almost a quarter of the total in the UK) does not mean we are at saturation point. Several of the 14 boroughs which have not embraced BIDs are considering their feasibility, including Wandsworth, Tower Hamlets and Haringey.  However, the 50 BID milestone is an opportune moment to reflect on what BIDs have achieved, their strengths and weaknesses and how the new Mayor of London may decide to enable them to work more collaboratively with other partners who are interested in the place-shaping of London’s many different communities.

The first BID in London, Kingston First, was set up in 2005 and in 2015 entered its third 5-year term. Term renewal is regarded as one of the most telling indicators of a BID’s success.  All BIDs in the capital which have held renewal ballots since 2012 have seen an increase in turnout and approval rates.  And yet, whilst London’s BIDs seem here to stay, they still face considerable challenges:

  • Cuts in local government funding mean that BIDs have an opportunity to expand their responsibilities and importance, but this also threatens their raison d’etre as business-led membership organisations which, first and foremost, exist to add value to statutory provision not substitute for it;
  • Opportunities presented by the government’s commitment to devolution and localism also bring risks and uncertainties for BIDs in terms of their financial sustainability, given changes to local government finance, rate revaluation and new taxation mechanisms;
  • Expectations of BIDs to play a role as convenors and enablers of local/neighbourhood plans bring added responsibility and requirements in terms of professional skills, and expectations of greater accountability and transparency to stakeholders other than just a BID’s levy payers.

BIDs appeal to the majority of London’s councils for different reasons. Inevitably, as town halls face further funding cuts, BIDs appear attractive as a money-saving device. Within that framework, some London boroughs adopt a hands-off approach, reaching a baseline-agreement for local services, but largely recognising BIDs’ autonomy as private-sector organisations. In contrast to this laissez-faire approach, others have sought collaboration in the form of public-private partnerships. Councils that have redefined themselves as enablers, see BIDs as integral to establishing new forms of service delivery and stimulating economic growth. Boroughs which have taken this approach include the City of Westminster, now home to eight BIDs; Lambeth (6); Southwark and Camden (4 each).

Westminster, for example, recently instigated regular meetings between the Leader of the Council, the Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Business and Economic Development and the borough’s BID chief executives.  This is a clear signal to the BIDs that they are regarded as key to the economic development of the borough.

The meetings enable the BIDs to report back on council services in their areas, but also to identify opportunities for contracting out services, including to local BID partnerships.

The council has also encouraged BIDs (eg Victoria and the New West End Company) to support the work of local Neighbourhood Forums; as business led forums they can then access Community Infrastructure Levy funding to support the development of a Neighbourhood Plan.

Lambeth’s transformation into a ‘Cooperative Council’ includes identifying opportunities to break up bigger contracts as they come up for renewal; smaller contracts, delivered more locally, have provided opportunities for BIDs (eg Vauxhall BID taking over management of Vauxhall Park under a council contract). The Council’s bi-monthly BID forum also lets BIDs propose and test new ideas, including South Bank BID’s proposal for a shared apprenticeship scheme.

Systems for engagement need to be robust. There will be occasions when the BID’s and the local authority’s interests conflict. Angel BID, for example, which has a close working relationship with LB Islington, found itself leading a vociferous and ultimately successful community campaign against the council’s proposed parking policy. In Croydon, relations with the BID became temporarily strained last year when the Council’s Labour administration took umbrage at the blue uniforms, along with bowler hats, of the BID’s new Street Ambassadors. They now wear an eye-catching pink.

A recent report[1] commissioned by the GLA and the London Enterprise Panel recommended that the new Mayor should focus less on the setting up of yet more BIDs, but rather find ways to support existing BIDs as agents of local partnership. The growth in number and diversity of BIDs in the capital calls for a greater awareness of the sector’s segmentation, enabling groups of BIDs to collaborate on different issues, as well with the voluntary sub-regional arrangements of boroughs which are linked to London’s devolution proposals. In the meantime, this is happening as much by chance as by design, with an ad hoc mix of BID-financed infrastructure and area-based partnerships in place (eg the Cross River Partnership), providing support for both inter-BID collaboration, as well as cross-borough public-private initiatives.

As, in the words of one BID Chief Executive, the “new kids on the municipal block”, BIDs are quickly having to find their feet in a fast-changing environment for both local government and wider governance arrangements in London.  It will be those BIDs with an enterprising mind set, political nous, an open and supportive relationship with their local community and a propensity to collaborate which succeed.  As new BIDs continue to emerge whilst others grow in maturity, the London BID community will become increasingly diverse.  This will require a variety of different support arrangements and partnerships – both area and issue based – in order to harness BID energies and resources, enabling BIDs to maximise their contribution to tackling London’s policy priorities which is in the interests of both their members and the wider community.

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science, co-authors with Future of London of The Evolution of London’s Business Improvement Districts

[1] The Evolution of London’s Business Improvement Districts March 2016



John is Managing Director at Rocket Science based in our London office.  You can check out his profile here.

School Ties

School Ties

Small businesses can play a really important role in helping young people transition from education into work. Richard Scothorne reflects on his work for the Federation of Small Business in Scotland, School Ties.

Small businesses are vital partners for schools in helping young people make a successful transition to work.  This is the key conclusion of our new report for the FSB in Scotland, ‘School Ties’, which presents our research into the scale and significance of small business engagement with schools and how to transform its reach and impact.  Although our work was built on interviews across Scotland the conclusions reflect other research across the UK.  Our main findings are:

  • Business engagement with schools – done well – can transform young people’s futures and earnings.  For example, every meaningful engagement with an employer can increase a young person’s subsequent earnings by 4.5% and those who have encountered 4 or more employers while at school are up to 20% less likely to become NEETs
  • It is really important to help small businesses (employing fewer than 50 people) engage with schools.  Most businesses are small businesses (84%-87% in urban Scotland and 93-96% in rural Scotland)) and provide a high proportion of jobs (24% – 36% in urban areas in Scotland – and 60-72% in rural Scotland).  Without engagement with small businesses pupils will be missing out on understanding a key part of the local economy and a significant source of great opportunities.
  • Most small businesses are not involved with schools – mainly because both schools and small businesses find engagement difficult.  It can take schools as much time and effort to set up a relationship with a small employer who may have an occasional opportunity as with a large employer who may have a number of regular opportunities.  It requires sustained effort and energy, with a key role for Head Teachers in creating a profile for their school in local small business networks and organisations.
  • But small businesses are willing partners – engagement needs to be made easy, and many just need to be asked.  Those that are involved cite altruistic reasons for their involvement – small businesses see themselves as part of the local community with a role to play in supporting a range of community issues of which young people’s employability is one.  However, most say that they gain business benefit from engagement – many citing reputational benefits as well as the value of the contribution made by pupils.


  • Schools in the most deprived areas have hinterlands with relatively low levels of small business activity.  They therefore need to spread their net wider to get the range of opportunities they need – and this suggests a collaborative approach with neighbouring schools.
  • In rural areas – where most business are small businesses – it is particularly important for schools to develop a wide range of small business relationships rather than focus on a-typical larger businesses.
  • Small businesses which are involved with schools contribute in a wide range of ways.  It is important that businesses are helped to understand this range of opportunities and match their ability to contribute to the needs of schools and pupils.
  • Teachers can benefit from engagement with pupils as much as pupils – bringing back new insights into how they can use to make their lessons more relevant to the world of work and enhancing their ability to provide useful insights into current and emerging opportunities in local businesses.
  • …and parents – as business owners, employers, and employees – can provide an important way of making connections between schools and businesses.

On the basis of these findings we have developed a number of recommendations about how to transform the scale and reach of school engagement with small businesses and so enhance the opportunities for pupils to match their aptitudes, aspirations and interests with the world of work.  This report is complemented by a recent assignment to review the work experience approach of a large local authority and make recommendations about how this can be placed in a much wider approach to employer engagement.

Download the full report here

…and our previous report on realising the employment potential of micro-businesses here

By Richard Scothorne


Richard is a Founder and Director at Rocket Science based in our Edinburgh office.  You can check out his profile here.