Skills gap in rural Northumberland must be tackled, says MP

Bigger efforts must be made to address a growing skills gap in rural areas, according to a Northumberland MP

Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith
Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith

Berwick’s Sir Alan Beith has called on Northumberland County Council to offer a more workable approach to further education, so that young people living in rural Northumberland can access training to find work.

“Young people in Berwick cannot be expected to travel to Ashington to further their education,” he said. “We need better facilities in rural Northumberland and I’ve been talking to Northumberland College to see how this problem might be tackled, be this through distance learning or better outreach services.

“We need an innovative approach because Northumberland is notoriously large with hard to reach areas.

“Agriculture remains important in the countryside and manufacturing in north Northumberland is essential. But there is a skills gap that needs to be addressed.

“It’s a lot easier in the city because access to further education and skills training is only a bus-ride away. You don’t have that luxury in places like Berwick.”

Speaking at a recent skills forum at Northumberland College’s Kirkley Hall campus, the county council’s chief executive, Steve Stewart said Northumberland’s economy was still too reliant on industries that no longer existed.

He said: “Our economy is reliant on the likes of mining, shipbuilding and steel, but those industries have long gone.

“We, as a public sector organisation hire 14,000 people, which makes us the biggest employer in the county. Second to us used to be Alcan, now it’s Egger in Hexham.

“I’ve never thought a local authority can create jobs, but we should be able to create the right conditions. The public don’t know what they want until we give it to them.”

Access to high-speed broadband across Northumberland is key to economic growth according to both parties and will enable young people living in the most remote areas to learn from home.

“Broadband is key to economic growth,” said Mr Stewart. “BT is not going far enough into deepest Northumberland so we’re going to do it.

“If it kills me, we will have high-speed internet before any other rural county in England, because it is key to sustaining rural areas.”

A lack of employment opportunities is forcing families to leave rural villages and schools to close.

The death knell finally sounded for Cornhill First School, near Berwick, in August last year after it was left with just one attending pupil.

Despite the fact that it boasted a glowing Ofsted report, it was unable to attract more pupils, forcing it to close.

“We don’t like closing schools,” said Mr Stewart. “But we had to close Cornhill First School due to a lack of money and staff to fund the school’s day-to day running. There was also only one pupil and he was getting lonely.

“Schools are community hubs, particularly in villages, but if we want thriving rural primary schools we need children.

“And to get children, we need parents living locally with jobs they can do.”

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