Learnings from the Party conferences

Reflecting on Party Conferences 2021 – What can we hope for in education?

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, last year’s 2020 party conferences took place virtually with members contributing and joining online. Fast forward to 2021, and there was a tangible sense of anticipation at the fact that some party conferences would be taking place face-to-face once again.

Here at Edge we’ve enjoyed a busy conference season, joining the Liberal Democrats online, the Labour Party in Brighton, the Conservatives in Manchester and the Green Party in Birmingham. We learnt so much from the chatter, the networking, the dangerous questions and passionate audience members – all of which would have been impossible to replicate online. Safe to say, we’re now glad to be back, and looking forward to reflecting on lessons learnt. We’re also unlikely to eat any more sandwiches for the next month, having consumed our fair share at conference…

Why conference – what is the point of going?

Firstly, given that conference takes a lot of energy, can involve a substantial cost and time away from home, it’s important to ask ourselves why we should go, and whether it is a good investment of our time. This is a question we explored last week with colleagues from across our wider education policy network who also attended the conference, and it was fascinating to hear a range of perspectives.  

Many of us found conference to provide an important opportunity to expand our horizons and join the dots between different areas of education – similar to a ‘reading week’ by immersing ourselves in multiple topics including “How do we fund an education recovery plan?” “The reform of assessment” “Bridging the skills gap” and  “The future of work” among many others. By doing this, we heard about new pieces of research and became alive to a range of different perspectives – with teachers, students, parents, policy makers asking challenging questions and highlighting their lived experiences. For example, we heard about the difficult mental health challenges that young people have faced this year. We heard from passionate teachers about how much joy their work brings, but how difficult it has become to teach amid increasing timetable pressures and accountability measures. These perspectives and new nuggets of information are important in helping us expand our thought and in bringing better policies to life.

Conference also provides an opportunity not only to join the dots within education, but to attend discussions on broader areas – transport, digital skills, the future of AI, and the green economy. After all, many of us often call on our own policy officials within Whitehall to better connect across government departments. So we must ensure that we practice what we preach and conference provided an important opportunity to expand our own thought and connect education to broader areas across our economy and society.

Some may also ask “Why bother going to the conferences of parties who are not in power?” For us, it provided a chance to hear important counter arguments and evidence that highlights where current policy is not working. Impartiality, honesty and integrity are important qualities for all policy makers – so we must continue to hold government to account, stay alert to diverse perspectives, and ensure that sensible policy proposals continue to serve the needs of its stakeholders.

After the past year of lockdowns and online events, this year’s conference provided a particularly welcome opportunity to network in person, and to finally put a real face to the zoom name. Not only this, but MPs and their teams were visible and approachable, which provided a welcome chance to directly interact and share ideas.

Some reflections on the main themes and shared messages

Education at the core of a prosperous economy and society

This year it was clear that education was at the core of all of the parties’ vision for a better economy and society.

At the Liberal Democrats conference, 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. Indeed, education was set out as one of their core pillars, alongside supporting small businesses and caring for our loved ones. 

At the Labour conference, education and the reduction of child poverty came hand-in-hand. Education also featured heavily in Keir Starmer’s speech where he highlighted “if you can’t level up our children, you’re not serious about levelling up at all”. He also highlighted the importance of a “curriculum for tomorrow” and the importance of work experience, careers advice and mental health support across schools.

At the Conservative conference, the headline message from Boris Johnson’s conference speech was “skills, skills, skills” with a clear focus on skills at the core of the Conservatives’ agenda for levelling up and addressing the impact of Covid-19.  

At the Greens conference, although in the process of updating their key policy recommendations for education, the party’s key philosophy of lifelong learning was highlighted, where no one should be left behind. There was an understanding that the current curriculum and assessment system is too narrow and sets a third of young people up to fail. Instead, compassion and inclusiveness are crucial across the board. A holistic education that nurtures curiosity and creativity is needed and for this more financial investment is key.  

Importance of skills and lifelong learning

Indeed, it was good to see the importance of skills and lifelong learning emerge as another clear priority.

For the Liberal Democrats, policy motions called for every adult to have the chance to access education and training opportunities throughout their lives by introducing Skills Wallets. There was also an emphasis on local skills gaps to explore how different parts of the country can cluster expertise and build networks. 

At the Labour conference, Starmer highlighted the importance of digital and creative skills that are in low supply, and the importance of rounded learners, who can emerge from school “ready for work, and ready for life”.

At the Conservative conference, ministers highlighted that we are on the “cusp of a skills revolution”, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak highlighting his ambition for “good work, better skills and higher wages”.

At the Green conference, the party stressed the importance of subjects such as the arts and music, which should complement a STEM education rather than replace it. After all the creative sectors is one of our country’s greatest exports, as well as being hugely beneficial for individuals.

Given the changing nature of work and increasing megatrends such as automation, the move towards net zero and the implications of Brexit and Covid-19, the world of work will continue to change and initiatives to support skills and lifelong learning will be needed more than ever before. Here at Edge, we will continue to push hard for this through our Skills Shortages bulletins.

Reform of Assessment

We were also surprised by the strength of debate around assessment reform, and the opportunity to reform assessment alongside curriculum and pedagogy. This is something we are particularly passionate about at Edge, alongside a number of other organisations including Rethinking Assessment, the New Era for Assessment, NCFE, the National Baccalaureate Trust. Appetite for reform is clearly growing, and we must seize this momentum for change. 

The use of narrative

We also saw discussions explore the use of narrative in the sector. For many, phrases such as a ‘broken’ education system, reference to “snowflakes”, the “lockdown” generation or “low skills” suggest negative connotations, and many agreed on the importance of using more thoughtful language, to highlight the excellence work taking place across the sector. We also saw the re-emergence of terms such as “vocational” a term that hasn’t been popular for a while now – and it is good to see vocational skills re-emerging as part of the broader skills debate.

There was also a broad desire for us to now use bolder, more urgent messaging around education. Many agreed that education is often seen as the “political football” that is often politicised or tossed about – but we can no longer afford to do this.

Importance of evidence

Discussions also highlighted the importance of research and evidence in guiding sensible policy decisions in education. Indeed, this was referenced multiple times by the new Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi who said “I promise you that I will be led by evidence in the decisions that I take. We will relentlessly focus on what works.”  We hope that this offers the sector an opportunity to work with policy makers on sensible policy proposals, based on rigorous research and data.

What can we look forward to over the next year?

There was much to learn over conference season and we hope that the energy and ideas generated do not simply fall away. For us, there are three key things that we hope to take forward over the next year:

  1. Education understood as a vital, cross party issue with collaboration at its heart

As highlighted above, education featured at the core of all the party conferences this season. We can no longer afford to kick it about as a “political football” – education is key to levelling up, it is key to unlocking the potential of all of our young people and it is key to ensuring that all people have the necessary skills for employment and for life. This requires collaboration across the sector and for politicians of all hues to come together to deliver for learners up and down the country.

  1. Rhetoric on skills supported with significant investment

While much discussion highlighted the importance of skills and lifelong learning, we now need to see this rhetoric matched with serious and significant investment. We must invest in young people and adults at all levels, particularly in our Further Education sector which continues to deliver so much, despite having faced a decade of tough austerity.

  1. An opportunity to reform of assessment 

With the cancellation of exams over the last two years, there are now serious and considered debates taking place as to how best we can seize the opportunity to reform our assessment system. This does not simply mean the scrapping of GCSEs. But we must now move the debate towards action and explore sensible alternatives as to how best we might evidence the skills and the application of knowledge of our young people, rather than default to a ‘lazy’ homogeneous system of academic, knowledge-based exams. 

For a fuller breakdown of each of the party conferences, you can read our perspectives from Edge on the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative conferences this year. You can also listen to our podcast on FE news reflecting on our experience at party conferences alongside colleagues at the NFER and the NEU.

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