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Live from Conference blog: Lib Dem Autumn Conference, Bournemouth

29 September 2023 

Education and Industrial Strategy held a prominent place at the Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference in Bournemouth this week, and I was there to find out more on behalf of the IOP, writes Eluned Parrot, Head of Wales at the IOP.


The Lib Dems are unusual amongst the major UK political parties in that their members, rather than MPs and officials, debate and ratify the party’s policies at their conferences each spring and autumn. This autumn’s conference season is of critical importance as we head towards a general election in 2024.

From a physics perspective, it was encouraging to see a substantial motion proposing action to address the teacher recruitment and retention crisis passed by the conference. With teacher training targets for physics being missed in all of the UK’s nations in recent years, our aim to see every child have access to a specialist physics teacher is in serious jeopardy.

There was much discussion about the high attrition rates in the profession, particularly among newly qualified teachers. The party proposes that trainee teachers should be paid as employees, and offered a range of placements in different schools to give them a more rounded experience of the profession so the transition from training into work is less of a culture shock. The proposals go on to call for reform of GCSE and A-level qualifications, more support for SEN pupils and the appointment of mental health specialists in every school. Read more about the education proposals (see footnote).

Another motion that may be close to the hearts of the physics community was their economic policy debate. The new policy will call for the reintroduction of an industrial strategy, with developing skills, supporting R&D and driving the regeneration of economically deprived regions of the UK at its heart. Read more about the industrial strategy proposals.

Personally, I would have liked this motion to be more explicit in support for “pure” research, not just obviously applied work. With Lib Dem members said to be 8,000 times more likely to have a doctorate than the general population, this is a party we need to advocate for our community.

In the Fringe events, organisations such as the Royal Society called for action on immigration, noting the increasing difficulties in attracting talent into academe in the UK following Brexit. They argued that the cost of UK visas is amongst the highest in the world, while delays in processing applications are damaging the country’s reputation as a location for world-class researchers.

Elsewhere, the National Engineering Policy Centre was one of the organisations talking to activists about the role of STEM research in driving our response to climate change, and two of the biggest teaching unions, the NEU and the NASUWT, held discussions about the future of the profession.

It was a busy four days, with conversations spilling out from the debating hall into the cafes and bars around the conference venues long into the night. I found great support for Limit Less and a ready audience for future evidence across our strategic priorities. I shall look forward to picking up some of those conversations with parliamentarians, unions and our fellow learned societies in the coming days and weeks.

Footnote

It’s important to note that on issues such as education, policies passed at the UK conference will only apply in England. With education, health, the environment and a raft of other policy areas devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd in Wales, MPs have no say in these matters outside of England.