Doncaster could emulate the education systems of Pittsburgh and Finland with the help of Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation expert Michael Stevenson

An education expert who works with the best systems around the world has been brought in to help leaders in a South Yorkshire borough develop a blueprint to tackle its longstanding lack of skills.

Michael Stevenson, a Senior Advisor at the global Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD), told an online event how the skills vision for Doncaster had similarities with the pioneering systems in Pittsburgh, USA, and Finland.

The former Vice President for Global Education at Cisco Systems, who grew up in Doncaster, was invited to help the local council make sure its efforts matched the best examples around the world.

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Michael Stevenson, a Senior Advisor at the global Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD), told an online event how the skills vision for Doncaster had similarities with the pioneering systems in Pittsburgh, USA, and Finland. Pic: Scott Merrylees

The Labour-run authority's chief executive Damian Allen described how action had been taken to address the longstanding issues of poor educational attainment, which has made the borough a place of "low skills and low pay" where "people feel trapped in a cycle of hard work for little reward, often in insecure environments".

After a 2016 review of its education system, changes brought in include the creation of four centres of excellence tied to local industry specialisms and high quality specialist provision like the National College for advanced transport and infrastructure.

But he told the event organised by think-tank ResPublica on how education could aid the Government's plans to 'level up' the country: "So much has been done. But there's much more to do.

"And despite these improvements as a place, Doncaster still lacks opportunity. It has almost all of the ingredients however, for success, but the traditional recipe isn't working for us.

"Many of our learners are disengaged from traditional academic forms of learning and many are not even acquiring NVQ level and other qualifications. There is a large gap to the national averages at levels three and four, and a high proportion of residents have no formal qualifications at all.

"Employers report that young people lack the high level and technical skills alongside the broader essential life skills needed in the modern workplace.

"And this skills gap is exacerbated by an exodus of young people who leave Doncaster in search of higher education and higher skill and higher paid employment."

The former teacher said Doncaster had been working with Mr Stevenson on a 'talent and innovation ecosystem' model that would bring about "systemic and cultural change".

Describing the idea, he said it was "deeply rooted in place, [and] is centred on a set of key industry specialisms and harnesses the strengths of our local assets".

He added: "It recognises the needs of residents and of local employers, which is crucial for us to improve our economic landscape. It attracts new sectors that offer quality jobs and to tackle the ongoing exodus of young and talented people.

"It takes a more vocational, innovative, problem-based approach to learning for people of all ages and backgrounds. They place equal value on the development of technical, social emotional skills alongside academic knowledge.

"And it brings together stakeholders to collaborate on aligned learning with real world design and commercial challenges."

Mr Stevenson told the event that Pittsburgh and Finland were two places "which I think are doing things that parallel the Doncaster work on the talent and innovation ecosystem, and maybe offers some indications of what it takes to make it happen, at both local and national level."

His role at the OECD involves development of the PISA survey, which evaluates educational systems around the world, as well as working with the highest performing countries.

He said: "But once upon a time I went to school in Doncaster. So it was fantastic really, when Damian asked me if I would bring my thoughts and experiences into the place where I was not born, but certainly brought up."

He described how the system in Pittsburgh was based on an organisation called the Remake Learning Network, "a group of interconnected and highly innovative people and organisations across the region, who are trying to make learning more engaging and relevant and fair for young people bearing in mind that those young people are navigating rather remarkable levels of social and technological change".

Among the innovations are mass participation learning events where learners can come and try an activity such as computer coding hands-on.

In Finland, which consistently ranks near the top of world education rankings, the DigiOne model is based around improving quality and breadth of learning and involves education providers, content providers across different media and digital service providers.

Finnish officials describe it as "an open ecosystem where all actors working in the field of education can join together to build a national service platform for education".

Mr Allen said the idea of "levelling up" promoted by Boris Johnson's government to tackle regional inequalities was a "great concept" but "isn't just about short term solutions and extra cash".

He said: "It isn't just about new shiny buildings or redirected bus routes. We need to pull ourselves towards what others might have taken for granted. And the key to unlocking our potential really does lie in our skills base.

"What's also clear is that the existing system isn't delivering for us and levelling up needs to recognise that we need to do things differently here. And I think that means going beyond the skills in post 16 education and white paper which is very welcome.

"I think it also means further devolution of powers and the licence to innovate to places. And I think it also requires us to have a more coherent, joined up approach across government departments."