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Education at the party conferences: what did we learn?

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So what did we learn about the two main parties’ thinking on the school system, following conference season?

Many commentators have spoken of the Tories’ mission to claim what they’ve termed the "common ground" (in other words, the space vacated by Corbyn’s "hard left" Labour). In their positioning on schools, the Tories tried to do just that.

Their pledge to dock the benefits of parents of truants was reminiscent of the early Blunkett ‘let’s get tough’ years. And the new right for parents to request extended opening rekindled memories of Tony Blair’s earlier efforts to lengthen school hours (though it will be interesting to see how Nicky Morgan’s announcement goes down in a time of public sector retrenchment, not expansion).

British values remained high on the agenda too, as Cameron declared there was no room for those Sunday schools and madrassas "filling hearts with hate" in modern Britain. And, of course, academies and free schools were upheld as the drivers of standards and rigour in the system.

Based on the media coverage, I did wonder whether some school leaders and governors may have been looking for more recognition of the challenges they face. There seemed to be little mention, for example, of the impending school staffing crisis (which many say has already hit).

We learned a lot about the Tories' ambition to be considered the party of education – but less about how they’ll deliver on this in what could be turbulent times.

Labour didn't offer too much by way of specifics, either.

Lucy Powell, the new education spokesperson, announced a commitment to "local oversight" of schools, continuing this theme from the party's last manifesto. However, she suggested local authorities would be given a greater role than had then been proposed, before adding that “more thinking” was needed on the detail.

This "thinking" will no doubt be guided by internal party politics, as well as the novel input of party members. If the past few months have been anything to go by, this will be vigorous and often polarised.

A risk for Labour is that its policies end up being an uneasy compromise between those who are pragmatic on the issue of school reform, and those people – now in the ascendancy – who have tended to oppose the school reforms of the past twenty to thirty years.

The tension is not necessarily a problem in itself, and could lead to bold and new thinking. But with the Conservatives claiming to be the party that has continued what the previous Labour government started, the challenge for Corbyn’s Labour is to define a distinctive and coherent vision to school leaders and governors that can’t simply be dismissed as a return to the “bad old days”.

Oliver Kean is a senior researcher at The Key

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