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No experiment is ever a complete failure

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The industrial strategy is the Government’s flagship domestic policy aiming to raise productivity and boost growth across the country. Yet there are still lots of questions about how policy can best support growth, and the fact that different places face different challenges and have different needs adds complications.

Experimentation and the learning that comes with it is a vital tool for delivering successful local industrial strategies. Indeed, as highlighted in ‘ Developing effective local industrial strategies’, testing different approaches offers opportunities to find the most cost-effective ways to support economic growth, without necessarily requiring big overhauls to the existing system. The sharing of plans and results from this experimentation can then help build the body of evidence on what works – and what doesn’t – preventing other places from making similar mistakes.

Skills is a good example of a policy-area where experimentation can make a big difference. Skills are one of the most important determinants of economic outcomes for individuals and places. Yet a new report by Centre for Cities showed that individuals in cities in the North and Midlands are less well equipped to succeed in the changing labour market than those in the Greater South East. The report calls for concerted action by Government and local leaders to improve education at all levels. In particular, it recommends each city establish a Skills Compact bringing together local policy-makers, businesses and education providers to experiment and learn what works to improve educational outcomes and participation in learning.

But what would a successful experimentation strategy look like for these Skills Compacts? We have looked at it using the guidelines provided in the new What Works Centre report on Local Industrial Strategies.

1. Experiment to find more cost-effective ways to support economic growth

By looking at the broader evidence on skills interventions, local areas can find new and potentially more effective ways to intervene. This does not necessarily require revolutionising the existing education and skills system, but rather incorporating and testing new design features that have proved to work in similar situations. In this sense, the Skills Compact could look at the existing evidence provided by the What Works Centres network to find projects suitable to their needs.

For example, if the barrier to improving economic growth lies in the Early Years, places might want to look at the EasyPeasy project – an initiative to improve outcomes for young children through parental engagement – and other initiatives reviewed and positively evaluated by the Education Endowment Foundation and already running in a number of local authorities.

The Skills Compacts offer a great opportunity to convene local expertise to pilot new approaches to improve the quality and delivery of education and skills provision. For example, one of the challenges related to the take-up of adult education is the necessity to juggle training between work and personal commitments. Local partners might want to consider how this challenge plays out in their local areas and adapt training provision accordingly, by piloting and testing different methods of provision – such as evening classes or weekend classes – to understand what works most effectively to increase participation.

2. Share plans for, and results of, experimentation

Promoting learning and sharing of best practice is essential both within the Skills Compact and between local areas to maximise the benefits of experimentation. This requires concerted action from the very early days of new initiatives, with partners coming together to identify clear objectives for the new initiative, what constitutes success (and failure) and how to measure, monitor and evaluate it. The What Works Centre offer support to local areas and organisations on how to embed evaluation from the start. This would allow local areas to have a clear understanding of what works – and what doesn’t – for them and have an opportunity to share learning with other places with similar challenges too.

If plans and results of new pilots are shared properly, no experiment – not even the failed ones – will ever be a complete failure. For this reason, for any Industrial Strategy to be successful, it needs to embrace risk and put experimentation at its heart.