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The view from the Conservative party conference, Manchester

18 October 2023

Public Affairs Manager John Punter reports from a Tory conference struggling to see past next year’s general election. 

Last week I attended the Conservative party conference on behalf of the IOP to engage policymakers and influencers and highlight physics issues, from education and diversity through to research and development (R&D).

A governing party’s conference is usually considered the most significant, as the party is in office and has the power to implement policies. This year was different, however, because next year’s general election (likely to be either May or October 2024) was clearly playing on people’s minds with the result far from certain. The Conservatives are still in government, though, and what the party is thinking is still important, yet there was a divided vibe at conference with some seemingly preparing for opposition and what kind of Conservative party may emerge after 2024.

With this in mind, many of the discussions at fringe events, receptions and even in the speeches by frontbenchers weren’t as forward-looking as you would expect at a conference and instead looked back at their policy legacy of 13 years in office.

Science and education

It was encouraging, however, that discussions on education and science were at the forefront of many conversations at the fringes, with government ministers present covering important discussions such as: ‘How Can Science and Innovation Support an Ambitious Plan for Economic Growth?’; ‘Powering Potential; The Role of Schools and Teachers in Tackling Inequality’; and ‘Scientific Synergy: Unlocking the UK’s Potential to Become a Scientific Industrial Powerhouse’.

All these fringes were standing room only and physics was often brought up by the panellists or from questions in the audience – not all asked by me! I did ask questions in all of these fringes, such as what was being done to tackle inequality caused by the dire lack of physics teachers and their unequal spread across the country, and also what efforts the government was making to help scale-up private sector investment in R&D. Unfortunately, the answers didn’t really point to new ideas from the government.

A political party creates a narrative behind their conference usually encapsulated by its agreed main message. This year’s was ‘long-term decisions for a brighter future’ and I was looking for something from the speeches by the various secretaries of state (education and science primarily) and the Prime Minister, that would hint at the strategic thinking behind what a Conservative government with a potentially renewed mandate after next year’s election would do to lead the UK towards 2030.

A smiling maths student writing on a whiteboard in a classroom

There was some in the PM’s plans for an Advanced British Standard qualification to replace A-levels, which is an interesting policy proposal to put technical and academic education on equal footing, among other things. The IOP welcomes this intention as we think a major review of post-16 education is overdue and we strongly support bringing parity of esteem to technical and academic routes. But, this proposal didn’t seem to be part of a wider package of ideas and critically left the education secretary’s speech shorn of any new, exciting policy announcements. The science secretary did mention important items such as their work on the Global AI Safety Summit, the Frontier AI Taskforce and a package to fund AI scholarships.

For physics, though, these announcements all felt rather scattergun and not part of a wider strategy for what UK science and physics education looks like in 2030.

John Punter is IOP Public Affairs Manager