The media circus, speeches, fringe events and speculation are over – party conferences are done for another year. DYT attended the two main party’s get togethers this year to great success, we met Angela Rayner, shared a panel with Damian Hinds and banged the drum for children and young people with literacy difficulties throughout. Dan and Karen share their reflections from the last two weeks….

A theme that ran through both party’s rhetoric was the importance of education policy – for Labour it is the great equaliser and a key electoral weapon (note Blair’s “education, education, education”) and the Conservatives overall conference theme was “opportunity” – something they see education as the “silver bullet” to.

However, discussion and debate about the importance of education and specific policies were short in focus and substance from both sides. Rather this conference season has again been dominated by in-fighting, leadership potentials and positioning on Brexit. It will be to the expense of nurseries, schools, further education, sixth form colleges and universities.

So, what did come out of the conferences?

Starting in Liverpool were there was a sense of urgency and restlessness from party members that they are being “out-radicalised” on education by the Lib Dems with their firm positions on abolishing Ofsted, phasing out grammar schools and weakening academy trusts.

Angela Rayner responded in her speech with a call to action to end academisation and the free school programme, allow councils to open new schools, take control of the admissions system, and cap MAT CEO salaries. All of which went down very well in the conference hall and may well reign in some of the excesses and failings of the academy programme. Her performance was very strong and has been noticed even outside of the education community.

However, the speech confirms that Labour’s landmark “National Education Service” policy is still defined by what it disagrees with – bogged down in talk on structures – rather than setting out a positive vision in which all children can prosper in our education system. DYT welcome Rayner’s assurance that the NES will be “truly inclusive” and that “no SEND child will be lost” but there was a missed opportunity here to flesh this out as we called for in our NES policy submission paper.

Onto Birmingham…

Whilst the usual array of education fringe events looked at different aspects of education, they felt slightly less well attended than their counterparts the previous week.

On a National Education Union panel, DYT made the point that cuts to Local Authority central service budgets are making the job of the classroom teacher increasingly difficult as they do not have access to the range of specialist support they need to help young people with literacy difficulties. Elsewhere, it was positive to see Nadhim Zahawi say that “off-rolling is illegal, unethical and will not be tolerated” at an Education Policy Institute event.

From Damian Hinds’ first conference speech we got a passionate vision set out to achieve a “world class” education for all that also looks to “subjects of the future.” In some ways Hinds incited a change of direction in education policy – one that focuses on “character” and producing “well rounded individuals” rather than just focusing on rigour and standards. DYT welcomes the detail about the “English hubs” – 32 schools across the country who will develop literacy specialists to spread best practice in early years and on phonics. However, as our research from last week found a regional disparity in SEND learners achieving the phonics screening check and a severe lack of specialist dyslexia teachers – more detail on how these hubs will support pupils with literacy difficulties was missing and is pertinent.

Furthermore, there is a sense that Hinds’ other announcements (sport, behaviour and careers) are a “drop in the ocean” to dealing with pressing issues facing the education sector – namely funding and accountability.

Overall, this conference season represents a missed opportunity to make education a political priority and to set out how any future government will support learners who struggle with literacy and revitalise their life chances at school and beyond.