Tabitha Roberts, Policy Advisor, The Edge Foundation

The Liberal Democrats Autumn Conference (#LDConf) took place virtually from the 17-20th September, with attendees from across the country gathering online for four days of policy debate, fringe events and networking.

The tone of the Conference was one of empowerment, with Ed Davey MP framing his keynote speech around the expectation that people should have ‘a Government that empowers them [and] enables them to take on the challenges they face’. This expectation for empowerment stretched between the three priority pillars for the Liberal Democrats that Ed Davey set out; education, supporting small businesses and caring for our loved ones.

Ed Davey spoke passionately about the Liberal Democrats previously being the party of education, and their strong desire to be the party of education once again. Combining this focus on education with the fundamental view that ‘Liberal Democrats believe in powerful citizens’, the key message was that Liberal Democrats want to support parents to support their children, and for parents to be invested in their children’s education.

To launch this commitment to education, Ed Davey called for a ‘massive COVID education catch up plan’ and this pledge to support children and parents as we come out of the pandemic was reflected in many of the fringe events at Conference. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the National Education Union (NEU) presented a joint session on ‘Delivering an education recovery plan that fully supports children’. Daisy Cooper MP began this thought-provoking discussion by setting out that there is both a moral and an economic case to invest in our children and their education.

The investment that the Liberal Democrats are calling for would take the form of a Children’s Catch Up fund of at least £15 billion. Ed Davey set out that this money would be spent with care and would be used as a catalyst for a fresh direction for education. The proposal is for £10 billion to be allocated directly to schools, and schools would be free to spend this additional funding as they think best. The Liberal Democrats want to trust and empower Head Teachers and Teachers at nurseries, school, colleges and universities to make the best decisions for their pupils.

The remaining third of the fund, £5 billion, would be given directly to parents in what Ed Davey described as ‘the most radical empowering of parents ever’. This would see a 3-year programme where parents receive vouchers to spend on what they want for their child’s education. This would allow parents the flexibility to spend the vouchers with their child’s own school; at afterschool clubs such as homework club or music lessons, or, parents could spend the money on private tuition, sports or counselling. The only requirement is that it supports the education and well-being of the child.

Additionally, the value of the catch-up vouchers would be doubled and in some cases tripled for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, for children in care and for children with special educational needs. The additional funding would help to empower the most disadvantaged children in the UK. This agenda was further supported during the policy motion debate for ‘A Fairer, Greener, More Caring Society’ where members of the party voted in favour of the motion that included extending eligibility for Free School Meals to every primary school student and child living in poverty, providing food vouchers during the school holidays and tackling the ‘digital divide’ by making household internet more affordable.

Child poverty proved to be an intersectional issue at Conference with the consequences being felt in the assessment system where a focus on examination and high-pressure testing disproportionately impacts those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

In the fringe event run by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the exam board AQA on ‘the future of GCSEs’, Baroness Garden as the Liberal Democrats Lords Spokesperson on Higher & Further Education and Skills, spoke passionately about how the purpose of education should be to set children up for life and that there is a need to find space in the curriculum for life skills and creative studies. Although the discussion was inconclusive on if, when or how GCSEs should be reformed, there was broad consensus that COVID has shone a spotlight on the nature and purpose of our assessment system. The debate around the reform of assessment continues to gather pace and this is something that we continue to passionately call for at the Edge Foundation.

Finally, discussions on skills spanned the Conference with policy motions calling for: every adult to have the chance to access education and training opportunities throughout their lives by introducing Skills Wallets; media skills to be embedded in the curriculum to help people spot fake news; and, regionalisation of England with skills being a devolved power. Sarah Olney MP spoke at a fringe event run by EPI on ‘Levelling up and addressing the skills gap’ on how we need to look at skills gaps regionally to see where different parts of the country can cluster expertise and build networks. Sarah called for work on identifying skills gaps for young people, particularly framed around how they can feed into the economies in their local area. At the same event, Lord Shipley positively referenced the Skills for Jobs White Paper which was published in January, but stressed that there needed to be action to back it up.

When discussing skills it would be remiss to not mention EU Exit. Concerns were raised about skills shortages in the UK as a result of EU Exit with fewer opportunities for young people to study internationally to build a broad base of skills. In the policy motion debate on ‘Rebuilding our Cultural, Artistic and Educational Ties with Europe’, Layla Moran MP and members of the Liberal Democrat party condemned the decision of the Government to leave the Erasmus Plus scheme and raised concerns with the replacement Turing Scheme as being less accessible and less well-funded, therefore reducing limiting its benefits in aiding social mobility. The future of skills is an important priority for us at Edge. We will continue to produce our regular series of Skills Shortage Bulletins and convene our Skills Shortages Analysis Group to share latest research and messages on this topic.

It is reassuring to see the Liberal Democrats highlighting Education as one of their three policy priorities. Over the next year we can expect high levels of engagement across educational policies with a focus on responding to the pandemic and putting children and parents at the centre of the Liberal Democrat promise to fight for a ‘fair deal’.

Tabitha Roberts, Policy Advisor, The Edge Foundation

One the 19th October, Edge will be hosting a discussion on ‘This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.’ from Party Conference season.

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