John Bald takes to the Conference fringe to hear Nick Gibb taking on the teaching unions
This was my first Conference, and I recommend it. You get to see, and occasionally to talk to the stars – I nearly said heavyweights. Eric Pickles got fewer headlines than Boris, but hit hard, was great fun, and was the only politician, if he'll pardon the expression, not to make a meal of the Olympics. And then there is the Fringe, with up to 20 events at a time, and proper debate, sometimes under Chatham House rules (nothing to be quoted or attributed) and almost always in an atmosphere of courtesy and respect between opponents.
Fringe meetings are rarely reported, and there is nothing to be gained from scoring points or turning them into a verbal punch-up – the only raised voices were at one union-sponsored meeting where the speakers went on for too long and didn't leave time for questions.
Michael Gove's technique of giving pride of place to real people, this time from Birmingham's Perry Beeches Academy and Free School, did not detract from his own main points, the Left's "soft bigotry of low expectations" and the "dark secret" of being born poor and then going to a poor school that left too many children without qualifications and without hope.
The first phrase was apparently borrowed from George W Bush, or more probably one of his speechwriters, but it is no less true for that, and was very well echoed in David Cameron's attack on the old educational establishment – the left-wing local authorities, the leaders of the teachers unions, the Labour party theorists who stood in the way.
They still do when they can, and it was left to Nick Gibb MP to face them down in a series of Fringe meetings in which he took the flak, fought back hard with good, clear arguments, and ended with a triumphant celebration of the Evening Standard's Get London Reading campaign. In its main project school, St Mary's, Battersea, had led to 100% success in reading assessments for seven year olds and 91 per cent in the test for 11 year olds, up from 52% the previous year.
The school had used synthetic phonics for the younger children, and Nick pointed out that the overall pass rate for the check had risen from 32% to 58% between the pilot and the first national test. The Standard had raised £450,000 for its campaign, and had deployed 450 volunteers to work across London, often highly qualified professional people who wanted to help.
Priti Patel MP had started a similar scheme in Witham, Essex. Standard Campaigns Editor David Cohen said that other city newspapers were well placed to do similar work, while Priti’s campaign had allowed her to make an immediate and positive impact on schools as a new MP. We need something similar in every constituency. I’ll be happy to help anyone who wishes to organise one.