Labour Party Conference 2021 Photo Credit: Elena Wilson

The Labour Party Conference (#LAB21) took place in Brighton from the 25th – 29th September. Being the first full conference since the 2019 General Election (where the party suffered its biggest defeat since WW2) it offered an urgent opportunity for the party to come together to challenge, debate and decide on their future goals.

We felt a tangible sense of energy and urgency rippling through the conference over the five days with considerable breadth of discussion exploring topics such as:

  • the Covid-19 recovery (“Reform, resilience and recovery in 16-19 education” hosted by NFER and Nacro);
  • the reform of our assessment system  (“The future of GCSEs” hosted by the EPI and AQA);
  • from the impact of child poverty (“No child left behind – ending child poverty” hosted by the NEU);
  • to the future of work (“Technology and the Future of work” hosted by Labour Digital and Google).

There were recurring themes that emerged across the discussion and what was particularly moving were the powerful questions and earnest life stories which brought these issues to life.

We heard just how difficult the past year has been for teachers, and how much we need to wrap our arms around them after they have done so much.

We heard from young people who have had to cram for high-stakes exams, questioning whether it has all been a waste of their time. There was much discussion around the reform of assessment, and how powerful this lever could be to unlocking change in the system.

We also heard from neuro-diverse young people just how much of a struggle their school experience had been, and how much more work needs to be done to support learners with SEND.

These are the stories that bring our work to life, and by immersing ourselves in five days of discussion, debate and lived experiences, we have learnt so much. It also highlights how much excellent work is being done across the sector, but how much more needs to be done to ensure the education system works for all young people, and for those who work in it.

And on this – it is good to see that Labour have been listening. Shadow Education secretary, Kate Green MP took many opportunities to thank the sector for our hard work, and for our persistence in raising the issues and opportunities across education. 

Looking to the shorter term recovery, Kate Green MP highlighted Labour’s Children’s Recovery Plan which set out the following ambitions:

  • Create a Further Education Recovery Premium, available on the same basis as the Pupil Premium in secondary schools
  • Extend the National Tutoring Programme, to reach the equivalent of all pupils currently eligible for free school meals at a cost of £572 million
  • Extend existing tutoring support in further education at a cost of £100 million
  • Extra support for continued teacher training
  • Extra school time for children to play and socialise through extracurricular activities
  • Extend alternative provision to post-16 to support those who have faced the greatest disruption at a cost of £90 million.

It is also heartening to see education sitting at the heart of Labour’s long term vision for a better society with Sir Keir Starmer highlighting: “if you can’t level up our children, you’re not serious about levelling up at all”.

Here is a flavour of some key education and skills priorities that were highlighted in Keir Starmer’s speech to the conference:

  • Digital skills: Sir Keir said that fewer than half of British employers believe young people have the right digital skills and noted that the UK has lower rates of computer skills than its economic rivals. He promised a “curriculum for tomorrow” and said that digital skills would be the fourth pillar of education under Labour. He argued that students must emerge from school “ready for work. And ready for life”.
  • Life skills: Sir Keir said that employers demanded young people who were well-rounded. He noted the importance of skills like communication and teamwork. He said Labour “will make a priority of getting this country ready for work” and will focus on practical life skills. He said it was “stupid” to allow theatre, drama and music to collapse because they develop these skills.
  • Education recovery: Sir Keir raised the lack of commitment to investment in recovery as demonstrated by the departure of the Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins. He said Labour will “launch the most ambitious school improvement plan in a generation” but that “it needs to do more than just recover” and be re-orientated “towards skills” and “towards work.”
  • Careers advice and work experience: Labour will reinstate two weeks of compulsory work experience, and would guarantee that every young person gets to see a professional careers advisor one day a week.
  • Mental health: Children and young people will be supported with their wellbeing by ensuring every school has specialist mental health support.
  • Green jobs: Sir Keir said that Labour’s Green New Deal would create “thousands of jobs in the process”, for example in making every new home carbon zero.
  • Education Excellence Programme: Which would include recruiting more teachers and a focus on reforming struggling schools.

Although not noted in the speech, Sir Keir has confirmed that he would end charitable status for private schools, to fund a learning revolution for state-educated ­children.  He has also pledged to ensure that every child has access to a laptop at home, and to provide £250 million to local authorities to re-engage the 65,000 16- to 17-year-olds who are Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET).

At Edge, we are particularly pleased to see Labour recognising the importance of education “developing the skills ready for work, and ready for life” and the role of work experience in developing rounded learners. For us, nothing is more important than a rich, relevant curriculum which brings learning to life, and develops the skills that our young people will need to thrive in their working and personal lives.

This is something we have long called for at the Edge Foundation. Our Skills Shortages bulletins consistently highlight the importance of essential skills, and our network of ‘Edge Future Learning’ leaders are bravely forging bolder, more innovative models of education. 

We are also working closely with colleagues at the Rethinking Assessment movement and New Era Assessment to explore workable solutions for a reformed curriculum and assessment system. Join us to be part of the change.

While there is much that we can celebrate, we now need to see the detail on ‘how’ Labour propose this change to take place. We must also remain alive to the challenges, and opportunities for even more ambitious reform.

Delegates and audience members called multiple times for bolder, more urgent action. So we cannot just “strive” to make change happen. We must now get it done. This will require all of us across the sector to work together, alongside policy makers and politicians of all hues.

Elena Wilson, Policy Manager, The Edge Foundation

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