Not all party conferences are created equally. Niamh Sweeney was at all three main ones, and discusses the many differences in tone, from Labour’s upbeat event to the Conservatives’ funeral march
I have just about survived three weeks on the political party bandwagon travelling to the party conferences.
What did I learn?
Education is still very high on the political agenda and, on the whole, the electorate, party activists, councillors, staff and MPs know their stuff. They have been to their local schools, have spoken to concerned professionals and parents. Many are parents, grandparents, teachers, governors and, regardless of political ideological differences, they are committed to make a better society for their families and communities.
The similarities end there.
At the Liberal Democrats’ conference the atmosphere was considerate and respectful, if somewhat quiet. Members and party leaders had a lot of time to engage and discuss education. However, they didn’t have any time on their agenda to debate education, which angered some delegates enough that they submitted an emergency motion on teacher recruitment and retention for debate on the final day. Well done party members for recognising such an important issue!
They did, however, have a number of education-related fringe meetings. While the Lib Dems seem oblivious to the fact that they were actually recently in government, and their former schools minister is more than a tad responsible for part of the current situation, they are at least doing some significant research and policy development into skills and education.
Education is still very high on the political agenda
The Labour conference was a whirlwind of activity, both in the debate hall and in fringe events. In 18 months, Angela Rayner has not only gained confidence, but has also researched the issues well. She clearly speaks with passion about children, young people and their families. She, and the shadow team, are telling me all the things I want to hear as an education professional, which leads me to believe she has listened to the profession.
Investment in Sure Start, education maintenance allowances and lifelong learning, paying education professionals properly and an introduction of national standards for support staff were all given priority in the her speech.
Party members, candidates and activists were keen to engage with our campaigns on school funding and the post-16, post-Brexit skills agenda. There was a confident buzz about the type of education system the party wanted to provide and the direction of party education policy.
Moving on to the Conservative conference in Manchester the buzz was less apparent. Sadly, the hall was by no means full for the education secretary’s address on the first day. Although many polls have said education was one of the major topics of concern for the general election, many delegates left as Justine Greening started speaking.
Speaking to her later I think she is genuinely passionate about what she said, but she rattled through announcements – although many were not new – on literacy and numeracy hubs, free childcare, apprentice degrees, pilot student loan programmes and alternative provision.
I was pleased she talked about alternative provision. I’m just not sure what she meant by it, and sadly SEND was again conspicuous by its absence.
Overwhelmingly the difference between the three events was the answer to the questions asked many times at all of them. What do we want the purpose of education to be?
I came away much clearer in my own mind about what that is for me as a teacher and a member of a community. I hope all political parties will continue to engage with the profession to ensure our education service is giving all of our children the opportunities they need to achieve and become well-rounded and active citizens.
Niamh Sweeney is joint president of the National Education Union