I am now in my second year as MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.
But just as proudly – and for me as crucially - I am in my second year as Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Education.
One year ago, I stood here fresh faced and new. Still recovering from an exhausting election, but full of excitement and enthusiasm. Impatient to play my part in rebuilding our Party after a couple of devastatingly disappointing election results – where cool reason lost, and hot rhetoric won.
I was determined to play my part in creating a radical, liberal movement that every one of us in this room could call home.
And just as importantly, where those who have no home could find hope.
Now a lot has changed in the last 18 months – except perhaps the ongoing failure of ministers to come up with a Conservative plan for Brexit.
I’ve definitely learnt a lot. Not least that to draw Egypt in the House of Commons Bar World Cup sweepstakes will earn you plenty of sympathy – and about as much money as Philip Hammond would likely make as a warm up act on the late night comedy circuit.
But one thing has never changed – not for a second – my excitement. I am just as determined and hopeful today about the future of our Party, about ensuring we are the political home for everyone who shares our ideals.
For everyone who wants to build a free, fair and open society, in which no one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.
In a nutshell, for anyone who wants to be radically Liberal.
Another thing which hasn’t changed one bit is my enthusiasm for education.
I was a teacher being an MP. My whole reason for entering politics was to create an education system which truly gives every child the opportunity to make the most of this scary, challenging but ultimately marvellous world we live in.
This is why I got into politics in the first place. And I’m as excited about this cause today as I’ve ever been.
But conference, in the 18 months that I’ve been an MP it feels like the country is moving further and further away from a good education for all.
Schools are facing a severe teacher crisis – over the last year 80 percent of teachers say they have seriously considered leaving their jobs.
And this really shouldn’t be a surprise. Our Party’s own research shows that nearly 4,000 teachers took long term sick leave for reasons related to the pressure of work, anxiety and mental illness.
This, against a backdrop of school funding cuts and a culture of teaching to the test, leaves so many highly skilled professionals feeling stifled and frustrated, because they are prevented from delivering the high quality education they know their pupils deserve.
And of course it is not just the teachers who have been let down.
More disgraceful still, the Government is failing our children.
Funding pressures mean that we’re dropping subjects from the curriculum – shrinking the scope of learning, and limiting horizons for the future at the very point when we need those horizons to be stretched to the limit.
10 per cent of teachers have said that art, music or drama completely disappeared from the curriculum in their school.
Without any kind of debate, the very basis of a liberal education has been snuffed out.
It is as if Jacob Rees-Mogg has been allowed to decide what every child needs to learn to equip them for the modern age. And that’s without even the help of nanny. What has the world come to!
Funding pressures mean we’re cutting teacher numbers and support staff. So those children who need a little extra help to keep up are simply left to flounder.
The public spending crisis means that budgets for the very basics – like books, equipment and classroom repairs – are being slashed.
And worst of all, there is the toxic culture of high stakes testing which is causing untold damage to children’s mental health.
“Children are suffering from increasingly high levels of school related anxiety and stress, disaffection and mental health problems…caused by increased pressure from tests/exams, greater awareness at younger ages of their own ‘failure’”.
These are not my words, but those of the National Union of Teachers in 2015. And that situation is only growing worse.
I’m not saying we don’t need tests. They are an essential part of any successful system. But they can never be the whole of it, and in recent times the Exam militia have run riot through our schools.
Conference, I am sure everyone in this room knows just how wrong - how damaging - this is. And at our last Autumn Conference, I asked you to come with me on a journey. A journey to set out a truly liberal, progressive, radical alternative.
And conference, you wasted no time in doing exactly that.
A mere six months later, when we gathered again for Spring Conference, we passed a policy paper which set out plans to radically overhaul Ofsted, League Tables and Primary School Exams.
A powerful combination which would start to unpick the culture of excessive control and nanny-state interference which is poisoning our schools.
Conference, I am so proud that we are the only Party that has stood up to say what so many in the education profession have been calling for, for years:
We must scrap Ofsted.
School inspections should not reduce schools and teachers to simply ‘passing’ or ‘failing’. Where is the uplift in that?
Inspections should look at the culture of a school and focus on the wellbeing of teachers and pupils as much as academic results. And where a school is struggling, an inspection system should support that school to improve, not punish it.
Of course it is important that we ensure high standards in our schools, but far too often, Ofsted causes far more harm than good.
Likewise, it beggars belief that we insist on continuing to publish league tables which cultivate a damaging system where schools compete so ferociously that they forget their true purpose: to improve education for all. Did you see the stories over the summer about the number of students who were excluded to make league tables look better!
Low performing pupils from poorer families were scrubbed from the roster to make the school look better, following a policy encouraged by the Government. Theresa May is literally scrubbing out those childrens’ futures. I call this educational purging. And it is a disgrace.
And conference, we know its high time we ended the unnecessary stress placed on pupils and teachers caused by high stakes testing in primary schools. Which is why we agreed to get rid of SATs.
The Government’s obsession with these tests is letting young people down badly. It perpetuates a focus on rote learning, rather than offering any real measure of children’s creatively, depth of understanding or ability to work as a team – attributes which will be far more useful than simply being able to regurgitate facts that by then will no longer even be relevant.
Teachers and employers both recognise we need to equip children for a vastly changing world. Most of the jobs they will do haven’t even been invented yet. We don’t need to stuff their heads with the dates of kings and queens, but instead teach them how to learn.
Conference, I am so proud that we are the only Party radical enough to have policies that prepare our children for the life they will actually lead.
But, I said last spring, and I meant it, these policies should be just the start.
As Liberals, we don’t shy away from doing what is right.
We don’t accept something just because that’s the way it is.
My determination to tackle injustice has only GROWN since I have taken up my role. And I ask for your help to not just expose that injustice, but to challenge the entire political system to root it out.
We need an education system that works for all children, not the lucky few.
What about the good and outstanding comprehensives which end up serving disproportionately pupils from wealthy backgrounds, whose parents are able to pay hugely inflated house prices to move within the school’s catchment area?
Now, this is not a new issue. And you can’t blame those parents. They are doing the best by their children, as any parent would.
But it is a challenge that successive Education secretaries have put in the too difficult basket. I can only assume they think this is an unavoidable consequence of the free market, and nothing to do with the education system.
Of course it is everything to do with the education system. Schools aren’t just where we get facts anymore. Especially in the age of the internet. Especially in this age of division in our social fabric.
They serve a higher and broader purpose.
They are a foundation of our liberal democracy, where kids learn how to get on together, to work together and one of the few spaces where they can mix with others from different backgrounds.
Ignoring this issue undermines the very principle of equality in our state school system.
So, I’d like us to be the Party to take this shameful injustice on.
In a society as divided as we have become, we need to bring families and communities together. Not stand by policies that drive them apart.
I believe every child, at every stage, should have every chance of accessing the best. They can never be written off. They can never be rejected and consigned to a worse option. We can never give up on them or their potential.
And it is for this reason, that I believe we need to reopen the debate on Grammar schools.
My issue is not with the schools themselves. In fact many are brilliant schools and their local communities are rightly proud of them.
However, it says everything that only 3% of children on free school meals go to Grammars. That’s compared to an average of 14% in surrounding areas. Selection of the few, results in rejection of the many.
How, when we know they do nothing to drive social mobility, does the Government push them to expand? What a waste of money!
How, when we know families spend thousands of pounds on private tutoring to pass the 11+ can the Government claim that they are accessible to all?
Damian Hinds the Education Secretary claims he has evidence they work. But his evidence is tantamount to a collection of anecdotes.
That is not data. That’s not evidence based policy making. And it’s not something we as Liberal Democrats should stand by and accept.
I’ll be honest. My personal view is that selection should have no place in the state system at all.
Now to be absolutely clear: I don’t want to close grammar schools down. Most provide an excellent education to children who attend them. Some have genuinely reached out and worked with their school neighbors and are loved by their communities. We don’t want that to stop.
We also know that the 11+ is deeply unfair. Children from better-off families, who are able to pay for private tuition, are far more likely to pass and make it to the promised land. But I want to make sure, working with those communities who have selective schools, that we can find a way to make them work for every child in those communities.
We also know that the emotional damage to some of those children left behind, can make them feel labelled as a ‘failure’ from age 11 and can last a lifetime. I’ve seen it in two generations in my own family.
What I want is for every child in areas which have grammar schools, to have an equal chance to attend them. An equal chance to benefit from the excellent facilities they offer. And to bring this policy in line with what we already have on faith schools.
So what I do want to do – what I would like to see us do as a Party, hand in hand with the communities that this affects– is take on the harmful, antiquated tradition of the 11+ exams and indeed all barriers to entry in the state system.
I’m especially talking about those areas where families have no choice whatsoever about taking the exams. Where creaming off the middle classes is demonstrably stifling social mobility for those worse off.
In those areas, Grammar schools are in effect state sponsored segregation.
It is wrong.
And it needs to stop.
But of course, selection on the basis of family income is a far more wide-spread issue than in the handful of areas which still have grammars.
Let’s talk about independent schools.
Now I was lucky enough to benefit from the incredible education that these schools can offer. My only wish is that every child in this country should have the same opportunities that are currently the preserve of families in the top 5%.
But given they disproportionately serve the wealthy, given the creaming off effect from surrounding schools, given that many of these families don’t even pay tax in the U.K, how can we justify their charitable status?
Now maybe they can. Many do brilliant work in their communities. But some do the bare minimum. We need better evidence about the impact they have, good and bad.
I’d like to see us do what the Government felt it could not. I think we should remove charitable status unless an independent school can concretely show it’s benefiting the entire community, like a charity might. We should end this type of state sponsored segregation too.
The elephant in the room is the why. Why do so many parents choose, in a myriad of different ways, to circumvent the state system?
It’s because they very often feel that they have to.
More fundamentally, we must work towards making sure that every school is a great school.
It is the most understandable expression of a parent’s love, to do everything in one’s power to ensure that their child gets the best possible education – particularly if that young person might need extra support.
We have a problem with Special Educational Needs.
When parents were surveyed, 40% said their child with special educational needs was not in full-time school
Many parents feel they have no choice but to game the system and try to get into a particular local school or opt out altogether and home school.
But isn’t it sad that parents need to think this way? Tthe implication is that many, many schools do not have the special needs provision that parents can believe in.
The Liberal Democrats should be committing to a massive additional investment in this, and I intend to bring a costed package of proposals back to this conference. To bring provision to every school in line with that of the very best. State or private.
We must also remember that educational opportunity doesn’t start and end with a ding of a school bell. Teachers point out that children are more influenced by the world around them, than the world inside the school gates. And they are right. I won’t forget out of school provision, when I develop these proposals.
The decimation of youth services because of funding cuts by many councils over the last two years must be reversed. And I don’t just want to get back to where we were five years ago. I want to see us go much further with ring-fenced additional investment in youth and children’s services to ensure they reach more children and young people and provide more varied and high quality support than ever before.
To go back to where we began: what can we do to better support our teachers? Because they are without a doubt the most valuable part of our education system. What can we do to value them and stem the flow of people leaving the profession they love?
Well conference, I think we can all agree teachers are long over due a pay rise. But when asked they rarely say it’s just about the money.
We need to do more to tackle the bureaucracy that makes their workload unsustainable.
And what can we do to empower them? To make their jobs not just tolerable again, but truly the most rewarding job in the world – which of course it should be!
Giving teachers opportunities to continue training and developing in their profession is key. Conference, we’ve committed in the past to getting our continued professional development up to the OECD average of 50 hours.
But why are we content to stop at average?
We should be giving our teachers training equivalent to the best education systems in the world. In Iceland, there is a minimum requirement for all teachers to undertake 150 hours a year – why don’t we seek to match that? Which of course has to include the resource to manage the release time needed to ensure all teachers make the most of it.
We all know that financing proposals like these, along with other key priorities will be a real stretch if Brexit goes ahead. Yet another reason to fight the economic self harm of Brexit – which any GCSE maths student can show simply doesn’t add up.
Conference, as you can probably imagine, this barely scratches the surface of everything I’d like us to do.
But I hope this gives a flavour of the kind of ambitious, truly Liberal reforms that I want our Party to champion. And that I am not going to shy away from grappling with.
Conference, I don’t pretend for a second that there is a magic roller to create a truly level playing field. But we have to try. And I ask you to join me again today, in being bold.
As Liberals, we demand an education system that enables every individual to fulfil their potential.
We demand an approach that looks forward in a fast-changing world.
And, whatever their background, we demand better for every single child.