What can teachers expect from the Conservatives?

Amid the turmoil of Brexit, what education news can we expect to make the headlines over the next four days during the Conservative Party conference?

What can we expect to hear on education from the Conservative Party conference.

It is hard to imagine a more chaotic backdrop to the start of the Conservative Party conference tomorrow.

Tensions over Brexit are at their highest point since the referendum and Parliament has refused to hold a recess this week, meaning MPs will be asked to be in two places at once.

However, the Conservatives have insisted it remains business as usual in Manchester. 


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Reports yesterday suggested ministers will simply be "zipping up and down the M6", which might raise the eyebrows of anyone who regularly travels that on that road.

But what can we expect to see in terms of education news from the Conservatives over the next few days?

Free schools are back

The policy which was seen as the Tories' flagship education vision is back to the fore. Education secretary Gavin Williamson is due to speak to conference on Monday about the success of free schools.

His speech, entitled "Creating a World Class Education System", will discuss the free school movement and “its success in raising educational standards across the country”.  

The presentation will also include contributions from parents, teachers and pupils. 

The new government has already made free schools a priority with an announcement from Boris Johnson that he wanted to see “even more of these excellent schools open, particularly in areas most in need of more 'good' and 'outstanding' school places”.

In recent years, the momentum behind the policy has ebbed away and the number of parent or community-led new schools opening has dwindled.

We can expect Mr Williamson to attempt to re-energise this policy when he takes to the stage.

Protecting Ofsted and private schools

With a general election expected to take place at some point during the next few months, political parties are already talking as if they are on the campaign trail.

The Labour Party’s conference was full of announcements and policy votes on education that were designed to appeal to Jeremy Corbyn’s base of support and which the party hopes will also win over teachers.

By far the biggest change Labour is proposing is scrapping Ofsted and replacing it with a two-tier inspection which will not boil schools down to a single-word judgement.

Even more controversially, for some, was the motion passed to bring private schools into the state sector.

These announcements mean the gap between Labour and the Tories on education is perhaps as wide as it has been for more than a decade. 

I think we can expect this to be reflected in Mr Williamson’s speech and in other debates around the conference venue. 

The Conservatives could well use this weekend to characterise the plan to replace Ofsted as going soft on standards and Labour’s move against private schools as being driven by the so-called politics of envy.

Behaviour

At a time when the Tory party and country are engulfed in turmoil and with a number of MPs having lost the party whip over Brexit, the conference stage will surely be seen as a chance to unite the Conservatives.

What might this mean on education? One area that Mr Williamson has already highlighted as a priority is on supporting schools that use strong discipline to deal with poor behaviour.

He has already said that schools have the backing of ministers to suspend or expel unruly pupils to enforce "proper and full discipline". It is the kind of message that will play well at party conference.

Might we hear more about the "crack team" that the Department for Education has said will be working with schools that struggle with behaviour to help set disciplinary standards?

More pay for teachers

Another issue that the Conservatives might want to promote is the plan to increase the starting salaries for teachers to £30,000.

Mr Williamson’s predecessor Damian Hinds made recruitment and retention of teachers a key priority over the past year.

While teacher pay is perhaps not cited as the main issue that drives people out of the profession, increasing the starting salary will no doubt be seen by the Conservatives as a sign that they value teachers. Whether they can win more teachers' votes at the ballot box, however, remains to be seen.

Funding on the fringe

It is also important to note that the Conservative Party will not be the only people making headlines at their own conference. 

Fringe events will cover a variety of issues, not least school funding, which unions will be keen to discuss.

On Monday, the National Education Union and the Conservative Education Society will be hosting a discussion on the future of education funding and why cuts need to be reversed.

Other education issues up for debate over the next few days include how we value teachers, whether school choice drives up school improvement and how the North-South education and skills divide can be closed.

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