By Elena Gabrys
The Conservative Party Conference is a 4 day long, national conference that is held by the Conservative Party in the UK. It takes place every year around October, this year from the 1st of October to the 4th. The conference consists of fringe events, reception and speeches which give the Conservative Party, the press and the public an opportunity to learn about the party’s ideas and policies for the next year. Rishi Sunak’s speech this year has stirred up lots of controversy about the changes that he is making or planning to make to England. These major changes include the education system, inflation, growing the economy, debt, NHS waiting lists and small boats illegally transporting people into the country.
The most popular and perhaps most controversial of Rishi Sunak’s changes to England is the changing of the education system. In the past, and for now until the new system is introduced, after completing their GCSEs, a teen can: continue to study the subjects they like (e.g. by taking A-levels, attending sixth form or a college), take vocational qualifications (practical qualifications that relate to a specific job or career sector), an apprenticeship (paid job where the employee learns and gains experience), or work or volunteer and study part-time. However, Sunak has scrapped this system of post-GCSE options and has introduced the “Advanced British Standard”.
This is a new obligatory qualification for 16-18 year olds which will merge the best of A-Levels and T-Levels. It will ensure that every student is studying some form of maths and English to the age of 18. In A-Levels, students typically only take 3 subjects of their choosing whereas in the ABS students will take a minimum of 5 subjects. Some of these subjects will be studied in detail as “majors” while others will be “minors”. For example, a student could choose to take 3 majors and 2 minors for their Advanced British Standard. This means that students will have the freedom to take a mix of both technical and academic subjects, allowing them more flexibility for future careers. The ABS will also mean that students will spend more time in the classrooms. Increasing the taught hours to a minimum of 1,475 hours over 2 years. This is almost 200 more taught hours than a typical A-Level student now has. This will bring England further into line with other western economies like France, Germany, Japan or the USA. Pupils who are starting Primary this term are expected to be the first cohort to take this new qualification.
Many may find it greatly discouraging to make future students study English and maths until they are 18 and are unhappy with the Prime Minister’s choices regarding the new system. They also believe that increasing the workload so much can have a negative effect on the students and may in the long term affect the grades. Others believe that it is a good choice to keep students in education until 18 as it would develop their skills further and create an overall more intellectually able society in the future. There is an outpouring of different opinions and arguments on social media as people boycott or support the idea.
Another one of the priorities that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak mentioned in his over 7000 word long speech was the aim of halving inflation by the end of this year. Inflation was at 10.7% in the 3 months between October and December of 2022, meaning that the government are aiming to reduce inflation to 5.3%. In August 2023 CPI (Consumer Prices Index) fell slightly to 6.7% from July’s 6.8%, despite the expected rise. Analysts still remain divided as to whether Sunak’s goal will actually be achieved. However, the Bank of England said in August that it expects inflation to be about 5% by the end of the year, which would meet the Prime Minister’s target.
Cutting NHS waiting lists was another goal outlined by the Prime Minister at the conference. Rishi Sunak said, “NHS waiting lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly.” This pledge only applies to England as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland manage their own health systems. The overall number of patients waiting on treatment in England in July was a huge 7.68 million, which was up by more than 100,000 from the previous month. It is common in England for patients to wait over 18 weeks, and even sometimes over a year, for treatment which is something that Sunak is not pleased with. When the Prime Minister visited a hospital in September, he concluded that his target of reducing the waiting lists was doubtful and “very hard”. The NHS goal is to see patients within 18 weeks for non-urgent consultant treatment. The overall waiting list is expected to be falling by about March 2024 however many people are still doubtful of this. Latest statistics have shown that more than one in eight people in the UK are waiting for surgery. People having to wait for long periods of times for surgeries means that they would have to also take large amounts of time off work which leads to the overall economic productivity taking a hit. The Prime Minister has blamed the NHS worker strikes for the backlog of achieving his goal. NHS England says that 778,000 operations have been cancelled or delayed simply due to industrial action. However, the waiting list issue is a chronic condition caused by under-staffing and under-resourcing but also by Covid. If it is really the strikes that fuel these astronomic waiting lists, as Sunak believes, then the next action should be to order the Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, to settle the dispute with the British Medical Association. Many believe that the only way for Rishi Sunak to meet his pledge is to reach a pay deal with doctors and overall NHS staff.
The Prime Minister’s final priority was to “stop the boats”. These are the boats that bring people across the English Channel, 45,755 migrants crossed over to England from France this way in 2022. Rishi Sunak proposed to stop this by new legislation. The government passed its Illegal Migration Bill on 17th July 2023. This gives the home secretary a legal duty to detain and remove anyone entering the UK illegally e.g. by these boats. Sunak said that his plan to tackle this issue is “starting to work”. At the 27th September, 24,293 had been detected crossing the English Channel in 2023, which is 25% less than had done so at the same point in 2022.
Rishi Sunak has introduced a lot of new ideas and changes to the UK ranging from the economy to the education system. They have been met with a controversial response from the British public but Sunak is not planning on backing down from his pledges. They are difficult goals to achieve but the Prime Minister is still working hard to try to implement these changes to the UK. Either way, the results will be seen soon and then we can decide if England is truly changing for the better or for the worse.