Conservative Party Conference 2015: Five Lessons

SCHOOLS NorthEast was present at the Conservative Party Conference (#CPC15) to tap into the mood music coming from the governing party and to identify areas that schools need to focus on over the coming months.

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Education was a dominant presence throughout the conference, with fringe events attended by ministers running from 8am to 9pm every evening.

Here are five things we can take from #CPC15:

  • The Government has declared all-out war on local authority school control – this isn’t new, but it’s never been spoken of so explicitly. Put simply, what was already a loosening of the local authority role in relation to schools was summed up when David Cameron used his conference speech to say: “Every school an academy … and yes – local authorities running schools a thing of the past”.

When the Education & Adoption Bill passes into law, the academisation programme will accelerate. This shines a spotlight on the North East where we have lower take-up of academies and a paucity of available sponsors.

Data published by the National Foundation for Education Research (NEFR) shows that fewer schools in the region are expected to fall foul of the soon-to-be enshrined ‘coasting’ regulations – one of two principle levers for widespread academy conversion.

The other lever is failing schools – but data shows the region has below average levels of failing schools.

The role of the Regional Schools Commissioner will be interesting in this process. Jan Renou told SCHOOLS NorthEast’s Advisory Board last week that she wants to work with local authorities to improve schools and that her focus is on driving excellence rather than enforcing academisation. She’ll need the diplomatic skills of a UN envoy to balance that equation.

An interesting aspect of the NFER research is the contrasting data between the two RSC areas with the lowest number of academies. Just one percentage point separates the North of England (50% secondary schools are academies/10% primaries) and Lancashire & West Yorkshire (49%/9%). But, Lancs/W.Yorks has considerably more maintained schools that will fall foul of the new coasting regulations. It also faces considerably greater pupil number growth forecasts by 2018/19.

  • Character education is rising up the agenda – this was a repeat theme at fringe events and is clearly at the forefront of Nicky Morgan’s mind. As our article (LINK) shows, “grit and resilience” was the phrase that tripped off the tongue at virtually every event.

While the Secretary of State is desperate not to be drawn on the definition of character education, she is certain that good schools are teaching it. Furthermore, she has half an eye on demonstrating its value in the near future … which begs the question, how will the Government measure something that isn’t defined, and how can schools engage and lead in this area? A steer from conference would be to look at the work of the Jubilee Centre and the Character Nation report published by Demos in June this year.

  • You’ve never had it so good – As a pep rally for teachers, the Nick & Nicky show was certainly eye-opening. While all the brightest brains from the education think tanks were focusing on trivial issues such as leadership capacity, teacher recruitment and retention, a crisis in pupil places and funding formulas, the Secretary of State and her Minister for Schools were eulogising the freedom that greater autonomy is bringing teachers and school leaders. SCHOOLS NorthEast was in the room when Nick Gibb said “There’s never been a better time to be a teacher” – met by groans from the room. Nicky Morgan’s proclamation that teaching is the “noblest of professions” was no less surprising – not because it isn’t (in fact, a fringe event on Teaching is a Profession, Not a Job was an invigorating session) but because those closest to the interactive white board would be forgiven for thinking that being asked to do more, for less and all apparently being achieved by 5pm each day are not the hallmarks of sincerity.
  • More responsibility, no more funding – it was fascinating that the two major announcements in the conference came not from the Education Secretary but from the Prime Minister. The concept of schools dipping into families’ child benefits to pay truancy fines is one that was greeted with concern by educationalists in Manchester, only topped by the news that school leaders will now have to think seriously about how they facilitate wraparound childcare should parents demand it. The latter was tempered afterwards with advisers saying this is more about opening up facilities than one of direct provision. But, this isn’t without cost or implication.
  • The cane is still the tool of choice to drive change – social justice was the key theme throughout all the rhetoric from ministers– a desire to do right by children. This was echoed by the likes of Jonathan Simon, head of education at Policy Exchange, who insisted the Government must put the child first in all that it did, not the sector. But, and it’s a big but, the choice of approach too often gravitates towards the stick at the expense of the carrot. The truancy announcement illustrates this perfectly. There is no focus on best practice, nor research on motivators to change behaviour. Powers already exist to fine parents and there’s the ultimate sanction of imprisonment. Stripping child benefit will only generate friction between schools and parents.
  • If you have any questions regarding events at Conservative Party Conference, or any comments on the points above, please contact Mike Parker – m.parker@schoolsnortheast.com
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