At the end of last week, we bid farewell to the mainstream conference season – at least, this columnist did. I’m always torn over conferences. On the one hand, as a bona fide political nerd, I quite enjoy being at the epicentre of all the political noise and events. On the other hand, the attraction of surviving on nothing more than cold canapés and warm white wine can pall after a while, let alone being screamed at every time you enter the main conference zone.
I mean, come on – can’t protesters be even a little bit original? It’s definitely “requires improvement” for most of them. Malcolm Tucker surely demonstrated the power and the passion that can be displayed with some top-level political abuse. And even the guy who wanders around every conference with a woebegone dog telling us the end of the world is nigh has got some decent patter.
Anyway, inside the steel ring that surrounded the Manchester Central convention centre, the Tory conference was afoot. And education secretary Nicky Morgan (or NiMo, as she told the Huffington Post she was happy to be known – a gift for the Twitterati) was most certainly present. I was told that she did the most fringe events of any cabinet minister – possibly, as her very tired aide told me while waiting for Lawrence Dallaglio to turn up, because everyone else was more sensible and said no. (To be clear, Dallaglio introduced NiMo’s main speech. We weren’t just hanging around waiting for him on the off-chance, so that he could escort us past the protesters.)
Perhaps interesting to teachers and headteachers is the fact that she’s a popular figure with the Tories. Her fringe event with Policy Exchange was our organisation’s single biggest event across both conferences, with almost 150 people filling every available space and even spilling out of the door to hear her speak. Her main theme of the week was “excellence everywhere” – building on the school-led system but intervening in areas of the country where that isn’t raising standards sufficiently. It’s difficult to argue with that phrase and sentiment, although I suspect that making it a reality will cause more ructions further down the line.
She stayed pretty clear of new announcements. Schools minister Nick Gibb did a couple of fringe events and surprised no one by resolutely defending a traditional, knowledge-rich curriculum.
The one new commitment, made in Morgan’s speech but accidentally tweeted a few hours earlier by junior minister Sam Gyimah, was for parents to have a “right to request” that their child’s school open for longer to provide childcare. The outlines of it sound quite sensible: schools will be allowed to say no if it’s “unreasonable” to stay open; they won’t have to provide the actual childcare themselves; and they will be able to charge parents for it.
It’s a little like extended schools under Labour, and indeed a more flexible version of Labour’s “primary childcare guarantee” in its 2015 manifesto, but none the worse for that.
As the politicians of different colours reconvene back in Westminster, it’s good to see they have more in common than they perhaps want to let on to their adoring conference acolytes.