Javneet Ghuman on the annual party conference season
As well as shorter days and colder weather, the beginning of autumn marks the start of the annual party conference season.
For the two main political parties, Labour and Conservative, their conferences could not have felt more different to last year. In 2016, the Conservatives were full of hope having just elected a new leader who was going to unite the party and deliver a successful Brexit. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn had survived a second leadership election with many Labour MPs fearing the end of their party.
Fast forward a year and the tables have turned dramatically. Brighton hosted a jubilant Labour Party as though they had been the victors in June, while Manchester welcomed a bickering and divided Conservative Party, and a considerably weakened Theresa May.
Despite the internal politics, education was high on the agenda at all of the main conferences this year.
At the Liberal Democrat conference, Education Spokesperson Layla Moran MP focused on the need for fair funding for all schools, argued against school league tables, and said that education should be accessible to everyone regardless of age.
This theme was also central to the education message of the Labour Party. Shadow Secretary of State Angela Rayner MP outlined Labour’s vision for education setting out their plan for a National Education Service which would enable everyone to access education at any point in their lives. She outlined its draft charter in her speech and crucially, the charter set out that “education [would be] free at the point of use, available universally and throughout life”.
The Conservatives too focused on education and for many observers, their policy shift was seen as an attempt to appeal to young voters. The headline announcement was tuition fee rates being frozen at £9,250, and an increase in the earning threshold for student loan repayments from £21,000 to £25,000. Then in her closing speech on Wednesday, the Prime Minister confirmed a review of student fees and loans, in a move to show that the party was listening to younger generations, as well as organisations like the Sutton Trust who have been calling for a fairer system.
Social mobility was also on the agenda in Manchester, with Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, speaking at the joint event hosted by the Sutton Trust and PwC. It focused on how businesses can help to improve social mobility, and the Secretary of State outlined her intention to announce a social mobility plan in the coming weeks to help organisations do this.
With one conference left to go, we can expect numerous education debates at the SNP conference in Glasgow too. With an upcoming Education Bill involving numerous reforms to help close the poverty-related attainment gap, and the recent criticism of education in Scotland, education will certainly be a talking point there.
If party conference season has made one thing clear, it’s that all of the main political parties are still developing their education policies. This gives the Sutton Trust a great opportunity to help shape the agenda and advocate for policies that will genuinely help young people from disadvantaged families across the political spectrum, and ensure education remains high on the political agenda.