Unity amongst division – a roundup of the political party conferences
With a whirlwind of political upheavals in the last few months – from Brexit, a new Prime Minister and cabinet, more Labour, Greens and UKIP leadership elections – we entered this year’s party conferences eager to get back to discussing policy. Fortunately for us, education policy was the order of the day with grammar schools leaping up the political agenda, important changes to apprenticeship and skills on the horizon and the educational establishment absorbing the decline in English and maths attainment heralded by this year’s GCSE results.
It turned out we were right on the money with that one, as we had organised a fringe event at the Conservative party conference with Bright Blue on precisely that topic. But first, to Liverpool, for the Labour party gathering.
Angela Rayner (Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education) launched the party’s campaign against the reintroduction of grammar schools and gave an impassioned speech, citing her own family background and the struggles she faced to escape economic disadvantage. We attended some sparky fringe events, including Social Market Foundation’s event on their Commission on Inequality in Education, the Resolution Foundation’s event on the economics of Brexit and the Guardian interview with Ed Balls about Strictly of course (and his new book)! But it’s fair to say the conference overall lacked some of the buzz of old, perhaps inevitably for an opposition party.
Unlike its counterpart, the Conservative party conference in Birmingham was jam packed with fringes and receptions. People stood in a long, snaking queue for one of the Spectator fringe events on a ‘Conservative approach to fighting poverty’. Where ten years ago you would probably have been able to grab a front row seat at an event on that subject, now, people were being turned away as the panellists spoke knowledgably about poverty and how to tackle it.
The big news on the fringe was, of course, Brexit, but another subject we were pleased to see gain considerable traction was apprenticeships. The government is still making much of David Cameron’s promise of ‘three million more starts’ in this parliament, but attention is also being paid to how ‘starts’ translate into ‘completions’ and ‘progressions’ and how we can ensure that apprenticeships go to young people from less well-off backgrounds – spot on our agenda.
David Hughes (from the Association of Colleges) made a great point at an FE Week fringe event: nearly £1bn is spent on promoting access to higher education. If the government believes that apprenticeships are an important part of the social mobility tool box, then there is surely an argument for funding to open up access to apprenticeships as well. We’ll be returning to this subject in the coming months when we release the second report in our Life after school campaign.
In support of this campaign, we teamed up with Bright Blue to host a fringe event on how to help more young people gain crucial English and maths qualifications post-16. Joining our Chief Executive Andy Ratcliffe were Nick Pearce (former Head of the No10 Downing St. Policy Unit, ex-Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and now at the University of Bath), Greg Hurst (Education Editor of The Times) and Lord Ralph Lucas. The conversation reflected that there has been plenty of (mostly good) policy change in this area over the last five years and a real determination to get more young people meaningful qualifications. But the Further Education sector, chiefly charged with delivering these policy changes, is struggling to implement them. It deserves as much of our attention as schools and universities.
`The question we are left with now that we’re back at our desks at Impetus-PEF, is this: How can we harness this renewed national focus on education to close the gap between young people from a disadvantaged background and their peers – once and for all? A measure of success will surely be a markedly different fringe programme at the party conferences five years from now (hopefully less).