At this time of year the news is awash with political headlines from party leaders promising what they are going to do for Britain. Conference season is one of the busiest times of the year for any political party. It is an opportunity to showcase a party’s credentials and talents, in the hope of gains in the polls.  This week saw the Labour party hold their annual conference in Liverpool; the first time since 1925.

FE Week’s Shane Mann was invited by the Labour party to take part in the Prosperity and Work session of conference on Monday afternoon. Shane used the opportunity to explore Labour conference and find out who has been keeping up to date with FE news from FE Week.

I first attended the Labour party conference in 2008, which was held in Manchester. At the time Labour were the party of Government and I recall the excitement of walking around the venue whilst casually bumping in to the odd Secretary of State or witnessing journalists running after their next potential story. For those that have had the opportunity to attend a party conference, it is a bewildering experience. But one that captivates you into the realm of politics and policy development.

This year I was asked by the party to take part in the Prosperity and Work debate on Monday afternoon. I was tasked with representing further education and to inform conference about the campaigns I led and worked on in Norfolk, to save the transport subsidy for 16-18 year olds.

I was one of four others to take part in the debate. Joining me were; Gordon D’Silva, CEO, Training for Life,  Sophie Jenkinson, chairwoman, Shropshire Young Labour and  Michael Taylor, operations director at Fosters Bakery and regional ambassador of the National Apprenticeship Service.

The debate followed key note speeches from John Denham MP, shadow business secretary, Liam Byrne MP, shadow work and pensions secretary and Maria Eagle MP, shadow transport secretary. She also joined us for the debate to provide a perspective from the Shadow Cabinet.

The debate focussed on our experiences in recent years and what we believed was needed to increase jobs, growth and improve public services.

Before it was time to enter the conference hall we were all invited back stage for lunch and a quick rehearsal. All of us were nervous; it was hard not to be, especially when an ex-cabinet minister, when asked how they find delivering a conference speech replied, “Its one of the worst experiences known to man.” At that point there was a sudden realisation from the four of us that, if they are nervous what hope is there of us calming down.

Following Eagle’s speech the Q&A commenced. A wide range of issues were bought up from the panellists, from support for smaller companies to enable training to its employees to graduate unemployment. I discussed the issues around the cost of transport for young people in FE and the impact of the withdrawal of EMA. I even “shamelessly” used the platform to plug FE Week, when referring to the survey we published last week from Lsect regarding student numbers this academic year.

For me personally, Maria Eagle’s policy announcement before the Q&A, was music to my ears. Since studying in FE I have believed that transport should be free for young people in colleges and sixth forms. There was wide support from the panel and conference when I concluded that it is simply not good enough to provide a concessionary scheme. The government need to reinstate the EMA to ensure that no young person’s education is hindered due to affordability.

Whilst at conference I also went along to several fringe events which focussed on young people. There was lots of debate around the quality of information, advice and guidance that young people will receive, now that services such as Aim Higher have now been removed.  Liam Burns, National President of the NUS, explained his concern that young people will not be equipped with the information required when it comes to deciding on whether to move on to university.

Both Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham made reference to apprenticeships during their speeches.  On Tuesday Miliband said, “Supporting the producers, that is what it means to be pro-business today. That is why I say all major government contracts will go to firms who commit to training the next generation with decent apprenticeships.”

On Wednesday afternoon Burnham went further to announce Labour’s new vision for apprenticeships. Burnham said “I want young people who aspire to do apprenticeships to have the same clarity, ambition and sense of purpose. I want them to be able to find out and apply for them in exactly the same way as people apply for university.

“So let’s look at a national UCAS-style system for apprenticeships, raising sights, rewarding those who work hardest, giving all children hope and a goal in life.”

Clearly these are only ideas at this stage and the policy of a party in opposition. However the idea of introducing a “UCAS style” application process is something that the sector needs to respond to.

Next week we have the party of government’s annual conference, we await the Conservative party’s next vision for FE.

Rt Hon Andy Burnham MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education enjoying his copy of FE Week

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