The Conservative Party Conference (#CPC21) took place in Manchester from the 3rd – 6th September, featuring a newly elected cabinet and new ministerial teams across government.

For us, this proved a particularly helpful opportunity to gauge the priorities of the Department for Education’s (DfE) new team. From the new Secretary of State, Nadhim Zahawi MP, we sensed a collective sigh of relief that we have someone who seems sensible and familiar with the world of education, with Zahawi having previously served as Minster for Children and Families in 2018-2019. In his short but personal speech to conference, he expressed his gratitude to the teachers who transformed his life and highlighted the following:

  • He would “drive up standards building back a better and fairer school system”
  • He said the Government was funding colleges to deliver a further two million courses
  • That “One day soon I want T Levels to be as famous as A Levels”
  • He promised a schools White Paper in 2022 to focus on illiteracy and innumeracy and to boost attainment
  • Highlighted the importance of evidence lead policy making, saying: “I promise you that I will be led by evidence in the decisions that I take. We will relentlessly focus on what works.”

Time and again, Zahawi emphasised that he is in listening mode, and given his focus on an evidence lead approach, this offers the sector an opportunity to provide sensible policy proposals, based on rigorous research and data.

Discussions across the fringe events also explored a range of topics such as: “Delivering on the promise of the Baker Clause” (hosted by UCAS), “Bridging the Skills Gap” (hosted by the Centre for Social Justice), “The Great Rebalancing: How do we shift post-18 education back towards a more vocational focus?” (Hosted by Policy exchange) and “Towards recovery: the role of lifelong learning” (hosted by the EPI and Capita).

Across these discussions, the role of lifelong learning and the importance of equipping our young people with the skills they need for future jobs and their broader lives emerged as a key theme. We were also encouraged to hear the government outlining the importance of education and skills playing a key role in government’s “levelling up” agenda. Indeed, this was highlighted in the Prime Minister’s speech where he highlighted the importance of “skills, skills, skills”.

It also included one new policy announcement – and this was on education, where Johnson announced a “levelling up premium” of £3,000 for maths and science teachers to the places that need them most. He also highlighted that:

  • Government will focus on creating a high wage, high skill and high productivity economy
  • Young people will be encouraged to get back into the office in order to learn on the job
  • While our Universities are ‘world beating’ some of the best and best-paid jobs result from alternative routes that do not include a degree
  • He praised young apprentices working in green roles in oil and gas

On the topic of skills, we heard Michelle Donellan MP outline that that we are on the “cusp of a skills revolution”. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak MP addressed conference, telling members that he wanted to focus on “good work, better skills and higher wages”. As part of the next phase of the Plan for Jobs, Sunak announced an additional £500m in new funding to help people back into work including:

  • The extension of Kickstart until March 2022
  • The Youth Offer (including the 13-week Youth Employment Programme, Youth Hubs and employability coaches) will be extended until 2025 with eligibility expanded to 16- and 17-year-olds in addition to 18–24-year-olds
  • Apprenticeship incentives of £3,000 for every apprentice hired (of any age) will be extended until the end of January 2022
  • Job Entry Targeted Support (JETS), a programme for those who have been unemployed for over three months, will be extended until 2022
  • The UK becoming a “science and technology superpower”. As part of this, 2,000 artificial intelligence (AI) scholarship places for disadvantaged young people will be created
  • The Government will double the number of Turing AI World-Leading Research Fellows

We were surprised to see that several fringe discussions included the word ‘vocational’ in their title – a term that hasn’t been popular for a while now. Edge has championed practical, technical and vocational education since it was founded so it is encouraging to see this noticeable language shift and acknowledgement of the benefits of a broad and balanced approach. Our “Principles of English Vocational Education” series debates, questions and challenges the underlying principles and philosophy of vocational education to move towards a more settled vision of vocational education.

Edge strongly believe that one of the biggest levers to achieving substantial change would be to reform the assessment system. Our current assessment system dominates our entire education landscape, influencing what is taught (curriculum) and how it is taught (pedagogy), so we were delighted to host a Fringe discussion “Assessment-time for a rethink?” at the Party Conference. We heard Robert Halfon MP and Flick Drummond MP, highlighting that our curriculum needs to move further to prepare students for the world of work. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a leading professor at Cambridge University provided evidence to question the timing of high-stakes exams during a period of fragility in the development in the teenage brain. Jonnie Noakes from Eton College and Phil Avery from Bohunt Trust offered practical examples for how we can better evidence the skills and talents of our young people. And finally, Edge’s chief executive, Alice Barnard encouraged the audience to help move the debate towards action, challenging the Government to look for the best way to evidence the skills of our young people, rather than default to a ‘lazy’ homogeneous system. A number of other organisations including the Rethinking Assessment movement, the New Era for Assessment, the NCFE, the National Baccalaureate Trust and many others are also calling for reform, so we must seize the momentum for change.

While we hope that Zahawi and his new team in DfE will look to introduce broader, bolder systems change and more ambitious policy reform, the early signs are not very reassuring. The Guardian has reported that ministers are allegedly looking at reintroducing SATs at age 14 (KS3), which were abolished in 2008.

Whilst we were encouraged to see that skills have become embedded across government’s narrative, both at conference, and more broadly there is much to do if we are to dismantle the era of Nick Gibb’s knowledge heavy curricula. If they are serious, government must match their rhetoric with serious and sensible investment in Further Education and skills that leads to meaningful change.

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