One Nation Education: Roy Preston’s memorial conference

Education conferenceSixty delegates came to the Forum at Greenwich two weeks ago, on June 22nd, for a “One Nation Education” conference in memory of Roy Preston, a long-standing Labour party member, school governor and former councillor, who died in June 2012. A year on from his death, it was poignant not having Roy as a participant at the kind of event he would have loved.

Local party members Annie Keys, Jo Ann Galloway, Prof Carl Parsons, Ella Statham, John Galloway and Cabinet Member for Children’s Services Cllr Jackie Smith all spoke, as did the headteacher of John Roan School, Des Malone, and the developer behind the new Cruise Liner Terminal planned for Greenwich, James Blakey. And we were honoured to have Roy’s widow Pat and his children Nick, Karen and Alison all there.

A key theme of the day was how to promote both excellence and equality – always a priority for Labour – and how schools can work better with students, parents and carers, and each other. If education is just left to schools to compete with each other on grounds of academic performance, what hope is there for children from deprived families, with behavioural problems, or Special Educational Needs?

Karen Buck MP, PPS to Ed Miliband, spoke at the end of the conference about the challenges the next Labour Government will face: investing in education at a time of tight public finances; how to make the curriculum more responsive to modern needs, after the constant stop-go changes that Michael Gove has been making; and recognising that Free Schools are here to stay, while making them more accountable and equitable.

The latter is a key issue in Greenwich, where one Free School is already up and running and another is likely to open in 2014 – with an admissions policy that seems to give priority to the children of its founders. Whatever one thinks of them, the jury is still out on whether opening new Free Schools is the best way to improve education for all students, rather than just the minority of young people who get places at these Free Schools. Greenwich Schools have been improving rapidly for ten years, since well before Free Schools were dreamed of, and despite all the media hostility we mustn’t forget all this progress that has been made.

And with money being poured into new Free Schools while good existing schools like Invicta wait patiently for the new buildings they need, the next Labour government will have its work cut out to spread resources equally. Labour’s shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg was  right to say recently that Free Schools will not be abolished by an incoming Labour government, but will be made more accountable, with a new role for councils, and required to only employ properly qualified teachers.

Well done to Jean Bloch, Jo Van den Broek and Paul Morrissey (just selected as a Labour candidate for Blackheath Westcombe ward for the council elections in 2014) for organising the event so well, and to Jeremy Fraser for chairing it skilfully. Roy has a physical memorial – a new bench by the Prince of Wales Pond on the heath, near where he lived – but his other memorial will be an ongoing debate about how to ensure all young people reach their full potential. The conference was only the start of this,  not the end.

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