How to influence MPs in the education and skills sector?

By Anne Nicholls; MCIPR and Chartered Practitioner

7  July, 2022 

Do you know what’s in the new Schools Bill, what the Lifelong Learning Entitlement means for adult learners and what the Augar Review is all about? If you’re a communications or public affairs pro working in the education and skills sector you need to keep abreast of what’s happening in the Westminster-Whitehall bubble, who the influencers are and how     to get your voice heard amongst a cacophony of sound bites. Wherever you work you’ll need to understand the big picture, as a new policy initiative can have a huge impact on the reputation of an organisation. 

To help people get to grips with the policy landscape and how to influence the influencers the CIPR’s Education & Skills Sector Group in collaboration with the Public Affairs Group set up an online event on 11 May with speakers from PR and consultancies, sector organisations and journalism to give people a taste of what’s hot … and what’s not.
One common thread running through the current government thinking is levelling up. Ed Dorrell, director at Public First (and former news editor of TES) has noticed a significant shift in government focus towards the regions. “That’s where the real action is,” he said. “The Conservative voices you used to hear are no longer like the ones you hear now: they have regional accents. Politics today has to be seen framed through the Red Wall and the levelling up agenda.”

Another change is a focus on further education and skills. Before Brexit the sector barely got a mention by politicians, except as an afterthought. “Now it’s all they want to talk about,“ says Dorrell. “It’s the biggest policy issue in town and will be for years to come.” Panellists were asked their advice on how best to influence those in power. Debbie McVitty, editor of Wonkhe, said, “Telling people the wonderful things that an organisation is doing never really works. Instead I would focus on specific things that are making an impact, then find the MPs that are passionate about that issue. Let the work, rather than the institution, speak for itself.”
Dave MacKenzie, Public Affairs Manager at the Association of Colleges stresses the need to build skills amongst members so they have the knowledge and understanding of parliament and can talk confidently to MPs. “We have to get them to talk about the issues they are facing, even if they are reluctant to talk negatively,” he said.
Getting MPs (and civil servants) to understand issues outside their comfort zone is a challenge. Education policy guru Steve Besley struggled to get politicians to understand BTECs, so came up with a novel approach. “We showed how BTEC qualifications affected the smooth running of a city like Manchester, where people working in restaurants and hospitality venues, running public transport and a whole host of other services all had BTECs. Without them the city would grind to a halt.” Point made.
Tiffany Beck, head of education at policy and communications agency PLMR, advises people to have a clear ‘ask’ when talking to MPs. ”But you also need to speak their language,” she says. ”Kick off with a strong argument, then maintain momentum. Use the media, social networks and digital engagement to create fresh content and hammer the message home.” 
Monitoring discussions in Select Committees and think tanks is important, as that’s where the real discussions take place. They are a much better check on the pulse of what politicians are interested in. Another is keeping tabs on the various commissions that have been set up recently. For instance, the influential Times Education Commission which had its first summit on 10 May, calls for root-and-branch reform, calling the education system ‘analogue’ in a digital age. 
What of the bigger picture? Besley recalls the moment 25 years ago when Tony Blair, recently catapulted into power, said ‘Education Education Education’. “Then there was a palpable feeling of hope and optimism that’s not present now. All the political parties are struggling to find a vision and purpose for education and skills.”
Anyone with a communications or policy role within the education and skills sector needs to get to grips with the big issues. But they also need to get into the mindset of politicians and shape their approach accordingly, rather than simply pounding on with their message. Sound advice is to keep conversations short, be clear on the message and see things from MPs’ point of view.

Here are five top tips. 

Speak the language that politicians are using. Find the issues they are concerned with and help them find solutions.  
By all means present a list of ‘asks’ but make sure they fit with MPs’ interests and objectives.
Having real examples such as a case studies helps to make issues relevant. 
Timing is important. Catch a newly-appointed Minister when they are open to new ideas and you have a much better chance of bending their ear.
Build skills and awareness amongst staff and members so they are confident when talking to MPs and influencers.