Nadhim Zahawi’s decisions will affect the life chances of millions

The new education secretary must repair the damage and then think even bigger

September 18, 2021
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At a national conference of school and union leaders prior to the reshuffle this week, I was asked how they could best influence politicians and policymakers. The question stumped me. In years past, I would have explained that civil servants and junior ministers at the Department for Education (DfE) are readily willing to engage and elevate the most important issues through to the education secretary.

But, for the past few years, the DfE has rarely been in listening mode. Despite calls from the education sector—and from independent institutes such as mine—to focus on and invest in important issues such as the persistent gap between disadvantaged children and their peers, recent education secretaries have instead been distracted by pet interests. And rather than consult widely, they have closed ranks, engaging mainly with those who share their ideological views.

Now that the controversial Gavin Williamson has been moved on, there is a real opportunity for the new education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, to rebuild the government’s relationship with the education sector and focus on policies that can deliver genuine improvement for children and young people.

There is a trail of post-Covid destruction that the sector is desperately trying to clear up, with little help so far from the government. The latest data shows that pupils in England are, on average, two-three months behind where they would have been in a normal year, with larger gaps for children from poorer backgrounds and in certain parts of the country, such as Yorkshire and the Humber and the northeast.

Yet in response to these gaping inequalities Williamson could only muster an additional £3.1bn over the next three years, which falls significantly short of the £15bn recommended by the government’s own education recovery commissioner, Kevan Collins, and led to his resignation back in June. We at the Education Policy Institute found that a £13.5bn funding package would be required to reverse the damage done to pupils’ education.

Undeterred and in the midst of the pandemic, when the focus should have been on education recovery and supporting young people’s wellbeing, Williamson then issued plans to clamp down on pupils’ behaviour, including a total ban on mobile phones in schools. At a time when the education sector needed clear advice from the government on how to operate safely to minimise transmission of the virus, Williamson focused instead on headline-grabbing measures to punish pupils and subject them to further disruption through suspensions and so called “managed moves” between schools. Such an approach only helped to fuel further mistrust among those in the sector.

The new education secretary can initiate a reset. Not only must he prioritise a better package for education recovery in the forthcoming spending review (and he has only a matter of weeks to do it), he will also need to grapple with the knotty issue of how to reinstate confidence in GCSE and A-Level grades, following the soaring increases as a result of the cancellation of formal exams. Indeed, the entire issue of whether exams are needed now that they have had a two-year hiatus is also something the government will come under growing pressure to review.

But an ambition simply to recover from the pandemic will not go far enough. Even before the onset of Covid-19, disadvantaged children in England were already over a year and a half, on average, behind their more affluent peers by the time they sat their GCSEs. Reverting back to 2019 is not sufficient. Zahawi will need to tackle the root causes of inequality. That will require him to work closely with counterparts in government leading on welfare, housing and health policies, because we know that the education system alone cannot fix the problem.

But there are policies, well within the new education secretary’s gift, which must now be pursued with a laser-sharp focus. These include better quality and access to early education, continued professional development for teachers, more mental health and wellbeing support in schools and a better deal for young people taking vocational qualifications. Some encouraging reforms to technical education were rolled out on Williamson’s watch, but whether they will succeed in narrowing the longstanding academic-vocational divide amid prolonged funding constraints remains to be seen.

Zahawi will have walked into the job this week with quite possibly the biggest in-tray of any recent secretary of state for education. To begin to resolve many of these pressing challenges, he must repair the government’s ailing relationship with the education sector, and follow the evidence on what’s genuinely needed to support pupils after 18 months of disruption to their learning. The life chances of millions depend on it.