Conference diary: What did we learn from four days with the Conservatives?

3 Oct 2018, 17:51

After four days of politics but very few policies at the Conservative Party conference, schools are still none the wiser about how the government can make life easier for them.

Reporting from Birmingham, Schools Week chief reporter and political editor Freddie Whittaker rounds up what school leaders learned from Damian Hinds’s first conference as education secretary.

Academies aren’t going anywhere, but not all Tories are on board

Both Damian Hinds and Theresa May have given the academies and free schools programme their full support, but not everyone in their party is behind them, it seems.

In conference fringe meetings, the education secretary espoused the virtues of academies and pledged to press ahead, while Tory councillors begged for the right to take back schools from failing academies, something Labour has pledged.

In her keynote speech, Theresa May defied the critics of free schools and pledged to build more. In the conference bar, council leaders spoke of their desire to open new schools themselves, another Labour policy.

These aren’t activists from extreme wings of the party, but elected Conservative representatives, and their dissatisfaction with the academies programme could prove a big problem for the Tory high command.


The big funding question remains unanswered

Headteachers, generally, aren’t known for marching on Downing Street. The fact that hundreds did last Friday tells us a lot about how dire the situation in England’s schools has become.

It is understandable, therefore, that unions were highly critical of Hinds’s decision not to address the issue in his keynote speech on Tuesday.

May’s insistence in her speech the following day that austerity will come to an end after Brexit will have been little comfort for schools either, because such a pledge means nothing without a long-term plan for education spending.

The prime minister may have left the stage to the sound of ELO’s Mr Blue Sky, but school leaders won’t share her optimism until they see concrete proposals not just to increase school funding in real terms in future years, but to reverse the damaging cuts seen since 2010.


Brexit immigration plan is a £50k headache for schools

The prime minister’s proposal to end the priority for EU citizens in Britain’s post-Brexit immigration policy is potentially a huge headache for schools.

The PM’s plan to require EU citizens to earn £50,000 or more to be allowed to work here, much higher than the £35,000 threshold currently applied to non-EEA migrants, will affect even some of the best-paid teachers. Based on current pay scales, even some leading practitioners in inner London would not earn enough to meet the new threshold.

So far, nothing has been said about whether any teachers will be exempt from the new rules, as some subject specialists are under current non-EEA immigration policy, and this will be the source of more unwelcome uncertainty at a time that schools could do without it.

The country may only recruit around 2.6 per cent of its primary and 3 per cent of its secondary teaching workforce from the European Economic Area, but there’s already a teacher recruitment and retention crisis, and every little helps.


Hinds shows a flair for networking, but schools need more

In Birmingham, the education secretary went on a charm offensive as he set out to prove to the schools community that he’s an energetic and sympathetic politician with their best interests at heart.

He showed himself to be a tireless networker who attempted to get to every fringe event he was invited to, even if that meant leaving some early and arriving at others late.

However, when meeting with sector leaders he rarely deviated from lines we’ve all heard before.

His admission that schools face pressures was welcome when he first made it months ago, but the repeated argument that there’s “more money than ever before” is wearing a little thin, especially when the reality on the ground seems so different.

His desire to focus on standards, parity of esteem and soft skills is admirable, but those priorities are really no different to those followed by his predecessors.

His insistence that he’s not ruling anything out in the battle against illegal off-rolling was welcome, but seemed puny in comparison to the powerful message sent by the children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi when he spoke about the same issue.

Hinds’s keynote speech was light on policies, perhaps unsurprisingly given the Treasury hasn’t been forthcoming with additional money for schools, leaving cabinet ministers’ hands tied.

Of the policies he did announce, most were not new, and his £10 million bung for behaviour training and £5 million more for careers advice are just a drop in the ocean compared to the support that schools need.

So while Hinds may have brought his own style to his role, he’s yet to show the substance of what his time at the Department for Education will mean for schools.

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