Party conferences: policy aspiration, inspiration and ideation

By Karen Wespieser and Claudia Sumner

Friday 6 October 2017

Party conferences are, by their nature, all about policy aspiration, inspiration and ideation. For the party currently in government, it is also a time for reflection and celebration. But whichever ‘tion’ is in the spotlight, research evidence can play a useful role.

When policymakers reflect back, research findings and evaluation evidence can be used to highlight the ‘whys and wherefores’ of successful policies. When planning future policy, research can help policymakers identify areas that would benefit from new policies and evaluations can indicate initiatives that could be scaled up or transferred.

This autumn, for the first time, NFER has sent delegates to both the Labour and Conservative party conferences. As experts in research, evaluation and evidence, we wanted to share our knowledge with the main parties as they carry out their annual policy discussions. Here are a few snippets of the key discussions from the conferences, and links to the latest NFER research.


Academisation – Angela Rayner, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, expressed her concerns about the activities and impact of Regional School Commissioners (RSCs) at a fringe event hosted by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT). NFER has produced a series of reports on RSCs, the most recent of which concluded that there is considerable variation in the level of challenge across RSC regions. Whilst the analysis focuses on the level of the challenge and not any individual’s capability to respond, it does warn that these disparities could affect an RSC’s capacity to tackle underperformance as effectively as is needed.

Apprenticeships – Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills, Gordon Marsden, shared a platform with a number of young apprentices in Brighton to explore the pros (the opportunity to earn and learn) and cons (the ongoing stigma around practical skills acquisition and a huge variation in the quality of options) of choosing a vocational route. NFER research with AELP last year focused on the needs of those providing the qualifications, concluding that the current context of policy uncertainty and rapid change is putting considerable strain on the provider market.


Phonics – Schools Minister Nick Gibb declared at the Conservative Party conference that “the war on phonics has been won”. NFER analysed the latest data released on 28 September from the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) and found a pattern of steady improvement, with the distribution of PSC scores by local authority (LA) narrowing markedly. However, we also warn that the challenge for schools and LAs going forward will be to maintain, or even to try and further improve on, their current performance.

Social mobility – Secretary of State Justine Greening told a fringe meeting that social mobility is, “the most profound challenge that faces our country” but, when challenged about how teachers could be encouraged to work in the most disadvantaged areas, admitted “some of our tools in the past may have been too blunt and simplistic”. One finding of NFER’s Teacher dynamics in Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) research is that some MAT leaders are taking a strategic approach towards workforce management, in order to provide an effective mechanism for deploying staff to challenging schools.

Of course, there were many more topics discussed such as T-Levels, careers, curriculum reform and accountability. Nevertheless, this is just a snapshot of some of the research that could help to inform future policy. By being present at the party conferences and taking part in the debates, researchers can play a valuable role in ensuring that even embryonic policies (like those discussed away from the glare of cameras) can be informed and nurtured by the best evidence-based research.

Just as importantly though, by being present to witness the germination of new policy seeds, researchers can also harvest new ideas that will inform their research portfolio for the next 12 months. Watch this space to hear more on the key areas of education that NFER is focusing on.