It was steady as it goes at the three main party conferences this year with education ministers signalling their intentions to reduce structural change
The party conferences had one element in common this year when it came to education – an emerging sense of stability in a sector in which there has been significant reform over the past decade.
Labour were the first to kick-start everyone’s favourite political season, with Tristram Hunt making his debut speech as Shadow Education Secretary. Honing in on three main areas for Labour’s plans for education, Hunt highlighted the party’s aims to bring down childcare costs, ensure that all teachers are qualified or working towards qualification, and to support the “forgotten 50 per cent” in accessing quality vocational education. In fringe events beyond the main hall, he also defended Labour’s academies programme while insisting that Labour would halt further free schools.
Though signalling her intention to continue the legacy of Michael Gove, the new Edcuation Secretary, Nicky Morgan, similarly advocated a desire for stability, with reform shifting focus on to people rather than structural change.
Highlighting her intention to collaborate more with teachers and unions, she also suggested reducing teacher workload, and put a welcome emphasis on teacher wellbeing and morale.
The emerging theme seems to be a focus on people-based change, rather than structural transformation
Morgan signalled her plans to ensure that children have soft skills such as resilience and confidence with a new £5 million fund. She also announced her intention to raise the quality of careers advice and business engagement in schools – one that will come as welcome news, particularly for those working with children from disadvantaged communities.
Indeed, it is these pupils who often lack the professional advice and networks that their wealthier peers have access to, and which are so crucial in today’s competitive labour market. It is an area that Teach First is seeking to support further through our Futures programme, with partners such as Deloitte, supporting students from low income backgrounds to make informed and ambitious decisions.
The Liberal Democrats also signalled a commitment toward stability as Schools Minister David Laws stressed, during fringe events, the party’s commitment to extend the protection of the schools’ budget to early years and colleges. Despite budgetary pressures, he reaffirmed a commitment to the pupil premium, rightly stating that tackling the attainment gap was “one of the biggest challenges” the country faced and which, if not tackled, risked other countries “leaping ahead” of us.
One area that did not make it into the main conference hall, but emerged as a theme across the fringe events, was a growing concern about the supply of new teachers.
Through our own work in schools, we see an increasing demand for the best teachers and leaders – with primary and early years particularly struggling to attract people into leadership roles.
This week findings from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission showed that only 15 per cent of surveyed teachers would consider teaching in a school more challenging than their own.
A recruitment crisis, coupled with a growing young population, risks putting further pressure on this earliest stage of education: a crucial time for children’s learning – particularly in addressing the attainment gap for those from disadvantaged communities. Let’s hope that while the issue was not addressed in the main hall, plans are afoot.
Coming away from conference, the emerging theme seems to be a focus on people-based change, rather than structural transformation. Sometimes it can feel like consensus is hard to find in education, but working towards a joint and shared vision for transforming the opportunities of our next generation must be our ultimate goal.
Personally, for me, the highlight of the last month wasn’t hearing the plans of the Whitehall corridors, but the buzz of transformations up and down school corridors.
Over the past few weeks I’ve visited incredible schools serving low-income communities.
Schools such as Loxford School of Science and Technology in Barking, Greenwood Academy in Castle Vale, Birmingham, and Perry Beeches Academy in central Birmingham.
Like many other schools, they are raising the bar and showing that young people from all backgrounds can achieve highly when supported by adult leadership focused on this belief.
It showed yet again that the most exciting innovations now happen at school level – any future government’s agenda has to be about how we let this excellence grow and increasingly become the norm.
Brett Wigdortz is the Founder and Chief Executive of Teach First