At the end of March 2020, early into the pandemic, Gateshead Council formed a Covid Economic Response Group, with workstreams on people, businesses, capital projects, stakeholders, and innovation.
Gateshead Council (GMBC) is on the South bank of the River Tyne, in the North East of England, with a population of just over 200,000.
In 2017, Gateshead Council developed an overarching 'Thrive Agenda' for Gateshead, to tackle inequality and make it a place where people can reach their potential. In Gateshead:
- nearly a quarter of residents live in the 20 per cent most deprived areas in England
- average earnings are below the national average
- one in five children live in poverty
- 5,000 people rely on food banks and 10,000 residents struggle to heat their homes.
The Thrive Agenda involves categorising households into:
- thriving (flourishing)
- managing (just making ends meet)
- just coping (just getting by or subsisting)
- vulnerable (in difficulty).
Prior to the pandemic Gateshead Council estimated over 50 per cent of people and families in Gateshead were either managing or just coping and over 30 per cent were in vulnerable situations.
- Employment: As the immediate employment impact of COVID-19 hit from lockdown in March 2020 and began to emerge further with sector shutdowns, sharp increases in the Universal Credit Claimant Count, furloughing and worsening of pre-existing inequalities, it was apparent that ‘place’ and ‘person’ specific characteristics would have a significant effect on residents, whatever their circumstances.
- Skills: At the same time, Gateshead Council’s LearningSkills team, which is fully funded through external contracts, were advised by funders that they would be paid retrospectively for the training they had delivered and could evidence. Initial guidance stated that where the training was not completed, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) reserved the right to recover the payment. This was later changed, to enable claims to be made if 80 per cent of activity had been delivered, which LearningSkills had met.
- Since 1997 Gateshead Council have been providing employment support and have helped over 25,000 residents move closer to or into work.
- The LearningSkills team, have 136 staff, are entirely funded through external contracts and work with 15,000 learners each year, both 16-18 year olds and adults.
At the end of March 2020, early into the pandemic, Gateshead Council formed a Covid Economic Response Group, with workstreams on people, businesses, capital projects, stakeholders, and innovation. The Group was responsible for co-ordinating all elements of the COVID economic response, including supporting businesses, mobilising and pivoting employment and skills support for individuals, and distributing business grants. The Employment and Skills Manager was the lead for the people workstream, ensuring the employment and skills was embedded within the response.
The employment support team and the LearningSkills team made an overnight shift to digital delivery, to enable them to support residents and fulfil existing contractual objectives. The LearningSkills team ran digital skills training sessions for both staff and learners in the weeks before the lockdown, which was supported by an existing digital skills strategy, continuing professional development (CPD) plans for staff and ‘digital champions’ were created to support staff who were less confident.
By early July, Gateshead Council had formed a detailed response to the employment impact of COVID, in the form of the Working Gateshead model, a comprehensive approach to employment and skills. This was a universal offer proportionate to the need of all residents of Gateshead, including those unemployed, furloughed, young people, economically inactive, looking to return to work or progress in work. The model used existing infrastructure and resources, as well as realigning staff, and took a place-based approach, with community job coaches linked to the five shielding hub localities. The model is not prescriptive and enables community job coaches to respond to individual needs and optimise existing funding streams, referring people to the right programme as well as filling gaps in provision, where this exists.
By August, the model had 15 job coaches offering an impartial triage service, helping residents access Working Gateshead community job coach support, ESF provision, the National Careers Service and the council’s LearningSkills. Staff were using email, google classroom, Facebook messenger and WhatsApp, according to customer preference. The service operated a ‘digital by default’ service and managers feel that staff, residents and businesses have responded well to this. Face to face sessions have been offered to the most vulnerable residents, where digital delivery was not a viable option. Operating on the basis of ‘no resident turned away’, since lockdown, Working Gateshead has helped over 100 residents into work.
The learning and skills team continued to deliver high performance throughout the pandemic and their COVID response plan rapidly adapted to deliver new requirements, as needed, for example using WhatsApp video for observations of apprenticeship delivery in care homes. They shifted to live streaming lessons, online quality assurance, rather than classroom-based observations, and have conducted individual risk assessments on all learners, as well as making welfare calls, helping out at foodbanks and supporting other teams within the council to start using digital platforms. All targets have been met, as well as supporting 146 people into apprenticeship opportunities, and delivering new projects such as a partnership approach to a virtual youth hub, and supporting young people into Kickstart.
During the pandemic LearningSkills saw a 98 per cent increase in safeguarding concerns for learners mainly linked to mental health concerns, which was not expected. Learners have been fully supported to access support.
- Taking a place-based approach to employment support, aligned to community hubs helps to deliver a more holistic service to residents.
- A triage service, with one front door, is a customer focused way of optimising existing resources and identifying ‘real gaps’ in provision.
- Both staff and residents/learners responded well to digital delivery, for example using social media tools to support observations in apprenticeship assessments.
Shifting to digital delivery was a challenge, particularly with regard to information security and information governance. Google classrooms was already in use, but other platforms, such as zoom, were not. This took some time to verify and enable internally, but was then quickly implemented due to the Covid Economic Response Group.
There are plans for capital developments in Gateshead, including further development of Gateshead Quays, Baltic Business Quarter and Follingsby Industrial Estate, which will create a further 2,100 jobs. Working Gateshead will be used as a conduit to bring providers together, to simplify the system both for residents and local employers. The service will continue to operate as digital by default, use a triage approach and have ‘one front door’ for residents. A strong partnership approach, focusing on the resident, is a key strength of the approach.