Skills and apprenticeships were centre stage at one of the party conferences, says Gemma Gathercole, while being relegated to the wings at the other.

By any stretch of the imagination it’s been a busy summer, from the referendum to leadership elections to the machinery of government changes. So conference season, at the start of the autumn –when almost every part of the further education system is undergoing some form of revision or review – should have been the perfect time to discuss these issues. The reality, however, was a tale of two halves.

For me the key take-away from the Labour Party conference was an internal message: a lack of focus on the issues of the day, particularly in relation to FE. Arguably, due to the need to restore party unity following a divisive summer, attention was elsewhere. In the exhibition hall, there were fewer corporate exhibitors than even last year; there appeared to be fewer fringe meetings in general and certainly the MPs were less visible. With one exception.

I must recognise and single out Gordon Marsden, who appeared to be the hardest working MP across all the fringe events. Gordon attended events covering all parts of his expansive skills, business and higher education brief. No mean feat.

However, this extraordinary effort to cover so many events masks an underlying message. The lack of visibility of other MPs indicated a lack of engagement from Labour MPs in general, over key issues that affect education, skills and productivity.

The lack of visibility of other MPs indicated a lack of engagement from Labour MPs in general

In three years of attending party conferences, we have always struggled to timetable events and to be able to cover the plethora of fringe events (seminars, debates, workshops and receptions that typically take place across the conference site and host city). This year, the number of events that were relevant for us to attend was relatively fewer and where there were a number of events on relevant topics, they tended to clash in the conference plan.

There was also limited reference to apprenticeships in speeches: just one mention from Angela Rayner and none from Jeremy Corbyn. While the broader education system was of course mentioned in their speeches, the lack of reference to approaches to current policy initiatives is a concern.

In contrast, at the Conservative conference this week education, skills and especially apprenticeships couldn’t have been higher on the agenda. As delegates ascended the staircase to the exhibition hall at the ICC, they could not miss the large space dedicated to the apprenticeship zone with FE colleges, apprentices and employers all represented. Within the exhibition hall itself, Pimlico Plumbers put their support for apprenticeships clear on their stand.

Within the fringe programme, there was an abundance of events discussing the impact of reform of the further education system. Brexit, social mobility, skills and apprenticeships were the buzzwords of conference. Robert Halfon, the new skills minister, devoted time to meeting apprentices and attended a number of
fringe events to discuss his priorities for
the role.

In her first conference speech as Education Secretary, Justine Greening was introduced by one of the apprentices from the apprentice zone, Jessica Shaw from Fujitsu. Justine Greening’s speech stated her intention to make the skills plan a big priority.

And there was one reference to apprenticeships in the Prime Minister’s speech; it may have only been about the target but words are critical real estate in conference speeches and it was important for it to be included.

There is clearly much detail still needed from the government about the massive ongoing reform programme for apprenticeships final details on levy implementation being first and foremost in this list, and critically, much more detail on the implementation of the skills plan.

But the evidence from Liverpool suggests that challenge on these issues may have to come from the sector rather than the opposition.