Published on 28/05/2021

The Aston Angle

Paula Whitehouse

How upskilling small business leaders will unlock our region’s economic recovery

By Paula Whitehouse
Associate Dean for Enterprise; Director, Aston Centre for Growth
May 2021


Earlier this Spring, in the 2021 Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a new programme, ‘Help to Grow: Management’. Since then, Aston Business School, in collaboration with Small Business Charter holding business schools, has been working to turn the vision into a reality. Help to Grow: Management will launch this summer and is set to provide leadership and management support to 30,000 small business leaders over the next three years.

A longstanding national productivity gap

The need for a programme such as this has long been identified. The government’s Productivity Review was published in 2019 and concern amongst policymakers about the UK’s poor productivity growth remains high. The pandemic has only served to exacerbate the problem with productivity figures plummeting and then showing some recovery as illustrated in data from the Office for National Statistics. Aston University gave evidence to the enquiry which consulted widely and used research from the national Enterprise Research Centre amongst others, looking into what can help the large number of small businesses who could be more competitive if they were able to boost their productivity. The government has chosen to tackle two areas with policy interventions, firstly the lack of formal structures and management practices in SMEs and secondly the fact that SMEs are behind the curve in adapting digital technologies.

Productivity in the West Midlands

In the West Midlands re-elected mayor Andy Street has developed his vision for jobs and economic recovery. Support to help West Midlands businesses increase their productivity is a priority; ONS data showed productivity in the West Midlands to be more than 10% lower than the UK average when measured by either output by hour or output per job in 2018. Regional labour productivity, including industry by region, UK - Office for National Statistics (

The mayor has set out his commitment to develop and source funding for business support programmes and to create new skills development offers, particularly focused on developing effective business strategy and management skills in SMEs.

The mayor also wants to see the system of business support simplified and made more accessible, pledging a review of the structures and sources of public sector support for SMEs in the region.

Our experience at the Aston Centre for Growth suggests that business leaders do not struggle to find support but rather are reluctant to give up their time to engage in programmes unless they are confident that the support offered will make a difference. The key is helping them to identify what is right for them at the right time and presenting them with evidence of impact together with recommendation from other business leaders who have already experienced the benefits. There need to be trusted programme “brands” in the marketplace that are allowed to endure beyond short-term public-sector funding cycles.


In recent years business schools have been busy establishing leadership and management programmes that have been shown to have an impact on growth and productivity.


Business school growth programmes for SMEs

Help to Grow: Management is by no means the first programme of this type. In recent years business schools have been busy establishing leadership and management programmes that have been shown to have an impact on growth and productivity. Indeed the Chancellor sought advice from specialists from the Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS) and Aston Business School about previous programmes in preparation for launching Help to Grow: Management. Well established and possibly the leading national programme is the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses UK programme, which has now been running as a collaboration with business schools for over 10 years and is outstanding in a number of ways - not least their vision to create a supportive alumni network for participants. This and other scale-up programmes have built the expertise of business schools in supporting SMEs on productivity and growth, and the Small Business Charter, launched in 2014 and run by the Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS), has created a respected quality mark recognising those business schools with the ability to work effectively with SMEs.

So when in 2020 BEIS approached CABS to develop and deliver a new leadership and management programme to support SMEs during the pandemic, the experience, the network and quality assurance were all in place to enable CABS to develop and deliver the Small Business Leadership Programme (SBLP) to over 2,500 small business leaders in less than 12 months. The programme, which is now coming to an end to be succeeded by Help to Grow: Management, helped SMEs with resilience, sustainability and productivity just when they needed support during the crisis.

The Small Business Leadership Programme has been a game changer for some business schools, giving them access to a structured fully-funded programme unconstrained by the match funding requirement of other funding options such as the European Regional Development Fund and enhancing the delivery of their civic mission to support local economic regeneration.

Upskilling small business leaders helps them to adopt new approaches and improve business practices and the result is a business that performs better, remains competitive and creates high quality employment. The Aston Means Business podcast series has featured many entrepreneurs who have used successful innovation strategies to survive during the pandemic.


Good leadership and management programmes work and it is the promotion of a dynamic small business sector that will deliver on the mayoral promise of a region that works for everybody.


A consistent approach from policymakers is needed

Evaluation evidence from the Enterprise Research Centre shows that good leadership and management programmes work and it is the promotion of a dynamic small business sector that will deliver on the mayoral promise of a region that works for everybody.

As Aston University presses ahead with developing the new Help to Grow: Management curriculum we encourage policy makers to let us build and refine a long term solution for businesses; one that has a chance to embed and prove its impact before the funding plug is pulled and we need to start engaging the business community on another new initiative.

It is after all not surprising that the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses programme is considered the gold standard with its enviable blueprint of unbroken investment, brand building, evaluation and quality control which has endured for more than a decade, a rare achievement in the business support arena.

Sue Smith, Head of Press and Communications
    0121 204 3521

Sam Cook, Press and Communications Manager
    0121 204 5065

Rebecca Hume, Press and Communications Manager
    0121 204 5159

Nicola Jones, Press and Communications Manager

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