Conservative Party Conference

Following on from last week’s report on the Labour Party Conference, SCHOOLS NorthEast Director Mike Parker attended the Conservative Party Conference to get the latest on Government education policy and to hear from leading opinion formers in the sector. Here are a few observations:

Centralised policy

It is impossible to ignore that all Government policy is being firmly driven by Number 10. Where the Cameron Government gave license to reformists such as Michael Gove to drive substantial change in their given departments, the new Prime Minister has an iron-tight grip on the direction of travel. If I had a pound for the number of times the words ‘social mobility’ were used, early retirement would beckon.

From an education perspective, this centralised policy making clearly gave rise to the reinvigoration of grammar schools (both Theresa May and her Chief of Staff, Nick Timothy, have spoken passionately about their experiences in selective education). While this appears to be making some within DfE (politicians and civil servants) uncomfortable, it’s here to stay and there will be a close eye kept on its progress by No.10.

Justine Greening

Our new Secretary of State for Education cut a different figure on the platform than her predecessor. A strong emphasis on her background – “…when I think back to my own childhood, growing up in Rotherham in the eighties. All I wanted was a level playing field. I didn’t expect any more – but I didn’t think I should expect any less either” – a reiteration of the fact that she’s the first comprehensive school  Secretary of State for Education, and a stated desire to put vocational and academic education on a par.

Ms Greening set out three ‘building blocks’: knowledge and skills; the right advice at the right time; and great, challenging, life shaping experiences.

Nothing startling there. In fact, the whole speech was pretty unstartling. And, that’s probably the best part of it. No major new initiatives, no huge shake up of policy or approach. For that, if nothing else, Heads will breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Opportunity Areas

The most significant part of the Education Secretary’s speech was the announcement of new Opportunity Areas. Targeted firmly at social mobility, they will receive a funding boost to put extra support into schools to support “partnering them up with the schools and teachers who’ve already raised standards and turned around schools elsewhere in the country”; to improve careers advice and to help business with “spotting and polishing up the talent of a new generation… the rough diamonds”.

Opportunity appeared in Ms Greening’s speech no fewer than 16 times, including a mention for Opportunity Britain … whatever that means.

Six Opportunity areas were named, with four more to be announced. Given the Secretary of State will be headlining next week’s SCHOOLS NorthEast annual Summit, the first time a serving minister will take to our stage, what chance one of the four being a North East area?

So how likely is it? Well, the focus is all on social mobility and flexing the extended remit of the DfE (now that it has responsibility for all education).

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published a Social Mobility Index back in January of this year, which identifies coldspots and ranks them.  While the North East has three ‘coldspot’ local authorities – Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Northumberland – that are in the bottom 20% of areas, they aren’t ranked as low as the first six Opportunity Areas that were announced: West Somerset (1), Norwich (2), Blackpool (9), Scarborough (13), Derby (22), Oldham (31).

The 3 North East coldspots are ranked as follows: Hartlepool (60), Northumberland (63) and Middlesbrough (65) – none are in the bottom 10%.

Is it possible one or more will feature in the other four targeted Opportunity Areas? Possibly. Would it make for a great headline announcement at the Summit next week? Definitely. Here’s hoping.

Around the fringes

You couldn’t move for education fringe events at this year’s CPC. It’s a hot topic and will be for the foreseeable if the Government is going to achieve its aim of increasing social mobility.

While yours truly attended sessions on a diverse range of education issues – from attainment to governance; safeguarding to child mental health – the stand out event was a joint Schools Week/Education Policy Institute (EPI) gathering on grammar schools.

It is an issue that divides the party members that were polled on the night and a new report by EPI found that “Once prior attainment and pupil background is taken into consideration, we find no overall attainment impact of grammar schools, either positive or negative”.

The most telling element in the context of social mobility is that the EPI report states: “We do not find a significant positive impact on social mobility”.

  • SCHOOLS NorthEast will be submitting a response to the Government’s consultation on new grammar schools. Any thoughts, please send them to m.parker@schoolsnortheast.com
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