Summary / Party Conferences briefing – education / Oct 2013
This is a briefing on announcements and key statements made at the party conferences this autumn.
The Liberal Democrat conference began with an announcement by Schools Minister David Laws that new guidance would be issued to support a reduction in the cost of school uniforms. The statement prompted a theme, with a range of announcements intended to help families manage the cost of living. Laws said that while “it wasn’t necessary for the House Commons to pass detailed legislation specifying the way schools should design the ‘micro elements’ of school policy” at the same time he wanted to make it as easy as possible for parents to buy school uniforms at a reasonable cost. This would be achieved, he said, by getting the DfE guidance right on the issue. The new guidance was issued a week later and can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-school-uniform-guidance-published
There then followed a significant announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, that from September 2014, all pupils in reception, year one and year two, would benefit from free school meals – a dramatic and largely well received announcement, although many questioned where the money for such expansion was to come from. Clegg said: “This is really good news for any family in the country with small children facing a squeeze on their household budgets. They will be £400 better off per child, per year….a healthy hot meal sets up children for the afternoon, gives them the ability to concentrate and do well in the classroom…it’s good for the whole class.” Free school meals are currently available to all children whose parents are on benefits or earn less than £16,910 a year.
The announcement builds on the recommendations of a 2012 review by restaurateurs Dimbleby and Vincent into the state of school meals – the report can be found here: http://www.schoolfoodplan.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/School_Food_Plan_2013.pdf
As the Labour Party conference got into full flow in Brighton, Stephen Twigg gave an interview to the Evening Standard in which he unequivocally stated that “academies are here to stay”. He also stated that “there is clearly an important role in the future for chains like ARK and United Learning, adding that they should be judged by evidence, outcomes and results.”
When pressed on the relationship with the trade unions should he become Secretary of State after the next election, Twigg explained that he would want “a positive relationship and a partnership. But working with people doesn’t always mean you always agree with them. And I don’t always agree with them and they don’t always agree with me.”
On free schools, Twigg stressed that his issue is “where free schools get established and how schools work together. When you’ve got this massive place crisis, the bare minimum you should do is make sure that any new schools are being created in areas that absolutely need the extra places.”
It was clear though that under Twigg, LA’s will have a greater role in the monitoring of academies. “My fear is that you could have an academy that struggles, fails, is not spotted, because who’s responsible for running this system? It’s the Secretary of State, responsible for 3,000 schools across the country – and that’s a big weakness.”
Key points from Twigg’s speech included
– The increasing cost of childcare. In addition to reaffirming the commitment to Sure Start, a Labour government would legislate to deliver a Primary Childcare guarantee. This would create certainty for parents of primary pupils that they can access childcare from 8am – 6pm through their school.
– Labour’s objection to unqualified teachers. Implied a reversal of the decision to allow unqualified teachers to teach in academies.
– A commitment that a future Labour government would “introduce higher standards for teachers in FE colleges” and “support primary schools to deliver work experience tasters.”
– A commitment to introducing accredited work experience placements by 18, with a work placement being conditional to achieving the Tech Bacc.
– A statement that independent careers guidance in schools would be given “a rocket boost” under Labour, by ensuring that Ofsted place greater emphasis on careers advice during inspections.
– A reversal of changes to AS levels.
Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls also announced that working parents with children aged three and four will receive 25 hours a week of free childcare if the party wins the 2015 general election. 440,000 children would benefit from the proposal, which would be worth about £1,500 per child and cost £674m. Balls said the expansion would be funded by a levy on the banks.
There were no specific education policy announcements at the Conservative party conference (although the decision that only a student’s first entry to certain GCSE examinations would count towards their school’s performance tables from Sept. 29th 2013 did coincide with the event: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/changes-to-early-entry-at-gcse). Ahead of his speech, the Secretary of State gave the stage to the former Washington DC teacher’s union President, George Parker, who spoke of his changed view and belief that unions too often defended poor teachers rather than served the interests of pupils, and Mark Lehain and colleagues who spoke passionately of their work in setting up and establishing the Bedford free school.
When he finally came to speak the Secretary of State praised members of his ministerial team and former ministers including Sarah Teather and Nick Gibb, stating that Gibb’s focus on rigorous subjects had seen a greater take up of STEM subjects, including a 22% increase in pupils studying A-level physics and a 24% increase in those studying A-level Chemistry.
He highlighted that his reforms had the support of Labour party figures including Lord Adonis and Sally Morgan, US Democrats, and others because they are “modern, progressive, radical and mainstream.”
He praised what he called “the best generation of young teachers and head teachers” stating it is teachers that have delivered the knowledge curriculum, tougher discipline and transformed standards in our schools.
He also criticised the leaders of what he described as “militant teaching unions” (many teaching unions were striking on 1st October and are set to do so again on 17th October). He continued by criticising the Labour leader Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference the previous week: “he did not utter a single word about our schools.”
He ended by saying “we need policies for head and heart….policy that touches the heart is education policy”. There is still a challenge to address the scale of inequality and it will, he said, take more than three years. 40% of pupils still leave without 5 good GCSE including Maths & English and, even more concerning, only one in three pupils on free school meals do so.
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