Conservative conference 2023: education write-up   

Conservative conference 2023: education write-up   

DeHavilland Policy Executive Eliza Kehoe has produced an education round-up from last week's Conservative party conference.

DeHavilland Policy Executive Eliza Kehoe has produced an education round-up from last week’s Conservative party conference.

Key takeaways:

  • The most notable announcements from the Education Secretary were a mobile phone ban and the potential implementation of minimum service levels in universities.  
  • There was little to no mention of workforce challenges or the RAAC crisis by Cabinet Ministers, who steered the conversation towards skills and apprenticeships. 
  • Concerns about the apprenticeship levy were raised across the board, with calls for reform heard more than once. 
  • Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s “British Baccalaureate” was generally welcomed.

Mobile phones and minimum service levels

The two big announcements at conference this year were the mobile phone ban and a potential implementation of minimum service levels in universities. In her keynote speech, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan announced new guidance on banning phones in schools and revealed that the Government would consult on minimum service levels in universities. The Education Secretary criticised “unrelenting and unreasonable” university strikes by the University College Union (UCU) and the failure to mark assessments, stating that students were entitled to receive the education they had paid for.  

On mobile phones, she underlined that they can cause distraction from learning and bullying. If the policy sounds familiar, it’s because Schools Minister Nick Gibb called for a ban in 2019 and former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson followed suit in 2021. Ms Keegan’s announcement generated the same criticism as in 2021, with union leaders noting that many schools already had this policy in place and that there were bigger problems to focus on, such as teacher recruitment or the physical state of school buildings.

Skills and apprenticeships:

There was little to no mention of the RAAC crisis by panellists or audience members, despite the topic dominating headlines leading up to conference. Instead, conversations focused mainly on skills and apprenticeships, with both Ms Keegan and Skills Minister Rober Halfon singing the Government’s praises for its work in the area. Both underlined how far apprenticeships had come in the last 13 years and highlighted how the “ladder of opportunity” provided by apprenticeships had improved social mobility. However, panellists continuously raised concerns that apprenticeship start numbers were dropping and that businesses needed to work closer with educational institutions to fill skills gaps better. Ms Keegan and Mr Halfon also continuously dodged criticisms of the apprenticeship levy, with many raising concerns about inflexibility, bureaucracy and difficulty in understanding how to use it. Calls for the levy to be reformed were made more than once.

British Baccalaureate:

At one fringe titled “Evolution or Revolution? Rebooting skills and opportunity”, panellists showed their support for the Prime Minister’s plan to introduce a British Baccalaureate. Plans to have students study maths until age 18 were generally welcomed as concerns were raised about students’ numerical and financial literacy. Panellists and audience members also highlighted the narrowness of the current curriculum and called for a greater focus on soft skills and digital skills. 

In his keynote speech, the Prime Minister announced that he will reform A Levels and introduce an “Advanced British Standard” qualification, which will combine A Levels and T Levels under the same banner and mandate the teaching of maths and English to age 18. Sunak’s speech also announced that students will study five subjects in depth at this level and increase the number of teaching hours students receive under the new plans. In addition, Mr Sunak announced the Government will increase the recruitment of teachers with a new £30,000 tax-free bonus for the first five years of their career.

Devolved education:

Speaking about Manchester’s new devolution deal, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham underlined his goal to integrate technical education by creating a new system driven by employers. He advocated for local input in technical education due to different employment market needs that could not be solved by centralising oversight in Westminster. His plan, the “Greater Manchester Baccalaureate”, aims to create parity of esteem between technical and higher education by constructing two viable routes for children at 14. At a net zero business event, Minister for Enterprise and Small Business Kevin Hollinrake applauded Manchester’s devolution deal and indicated that similar deals should be struck across the country to join up business with education better.

Absence crisis

Addressing absence concerns, Ms Keegan said it was the thing she “most worried about” as Education Secretary. She stressed that the Department was wholly focused on addressing the issue, noting the expansion of attendance hubs and piloting the attendance mentor scheme. When asked whether she would implement pandemic-style school closures in future, Ms Keegan said she could not rule it out because “you know you do have to look at the circumstances”.


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