Conservative Party Conference

Growth, growth, growth. But what about education?

The ‘education prime minister’s’ honeymoon conference lacked policy and failed to make the link between the sector and the growth it wants, writes Alice Barnard

The ‘education prime minister’s’ honeymoon conference lacked policy and failed to make the link between the sector and the growth it wants, writes Alice Barnard

8 Oct 2022, 5:00

This year’s Conservative Party conference took place against the backdrop of economic turbulence and an opposition party racing ahead in the polls. The decision to announce two U-turns (on the 45p tax rate cut and to bring forward the date for the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast) did nothing to raise the spirits of gloomy conference-goers or mutinous MPs. A worry for the new prime minister, who should have been enjoying her ‘honeymoon’ conference.

The economy and the repeated refrain of “growth, growth, growth” dominated conversations. Yet for a country facing an immediate cost-of-living crisis and low trust in the current administration, this mantra felt strangely out of touch and long-term.

And where will this growth come from? From public sector services? For education, cuts cannot be an option. The education sector has already been woefully underfunded for years and we are seeing the damaging effects through a teacher retention and recruitment crisis, serious underfunding in the further education sector, and anecdotal evidence of parents having to reach into their pockets to fund school swimming lessons and libraries or being unable to afford adequate lunches.

Given the scale of the crisis, we sadly saw little mention of education. And when we did, there was little cause for celebration. Kit Malthouse announced that he would look to lift the ban on grammar schools, and that he would be even more assertive about intervention and standards. How about we trust our teachers and school and college leaders, and allow them to get on with the joy of teaching for a change?

For a government obsessed with growth (and a new PM who at one stage hoped to be the “education prime minister”), it was a wasted opportunity not to put education and training at the heart of discussions. Investment in education is an investment in human capital and future talent. It can help to restore a sustainable upward trajectory in productivity. And education needs our help now. Teachers and students need our help now. We cannot simply wait for trickle-down economics to deliver changes. Young lives and teacher welfare depend on immediate action.  

Yet there was minimal discussion on the topic of skills and further education. Our ‘Skills for the Future’ fringe event sought to address this with a panel made up of Sir Charlie Mayfield, NFER’S Carole Willis and Jude Hillary, Shaun Bailey MP, UK Youth CEO Ndidi Okezie, and myself. We all highlighted that the gap between education and what the world of work wants continues to widen.

Apart from the newly secured Skills and Post-16 Education Act, there has been a sense of government inertia for too long. We now need cross-party action with a sense of urgency to deliver fundamental changes to the skills system.

After all, there are well-researched solutions for the challenges the sector faces. Our open letter to the secretary of state set some of these out and called for:

  1. A long-term education strategy
  2. Prioritising skills as well as knowledge
  3. Evidencing a wider portfolio of talents
  4. Turning the tide on technical education
  5. Developing balanced school and college evaluations

We sincerely hope these recommendations are taken on board and look forward to working with politicians and civil servants to turn them into reality.

We face turbulent times and not just from the cost-of-living crisis. Concerns about climate change and the fallout of Brexit are also important challenges for which further education can be part of the solution.

Yet the sector and the nation have been lurching from one policy change, one heated political debate, one scandal to the next. This has resulted in a febrile atmosphere surrounding politics. But worse, it has embedded a strange lack of policy memory.

If the government now wants to move forward with no distractions, we must restore public trust in politics and policy making. For education, this can begin with an open and continuous dialogue with the teachers, young people, policy makers, employers and parents who are willing and ready for change.

That’s one U-turn that could win hearts and minds. And votes.

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