After a dramatic week, a Government reshuffle has seen Nadhim Zahawi replace Gavin Williamson as the Secretary of State for Education. Nick Gibb has also been removed as Schools Minister.
In office since July 2019, calls for Williamson to be removed have been growing ever louder during two covid-hit and controversial exam years, with a mixture of algorithms, teacher assessed grades and U-turns all being put forward as reasons for his removal.
In a statement following the announcement, Zahawi noted his previous role in the Department for Education as a Parliamentary Under Secretary: “Education is a crucial part of our levelling up agenda so it’s an honour to be back at the Department for Education as Secretary of State.”
The new Secretary of State then went on to acknowledge the “tough time” that children and their families had faced during the pandemic, before sharing how passionate he was for them all to have a brilliant education.
However, there is room for doubt as to whether or not the new Secretary of State fully appreciates the context the region’s schools work in or the impact that covid has had on them. In regard to school meals, Zahawi has previously stated that although parents “valued the meals, they didn’t like the labelling of them being free” and that “they actually prefer to pay a modest amount of £1 or £2”; a message that hardly chimes with the resources of many of the region’s poorest communities or the efforts of NE schools, throughout the pandemic, to feed and support disadvantaged communities.
Therefore, despite the change in personnel, Schools North East’s key messages to the Education Secretary remain the same: Most immediately, the Government needs to provide early and clear guidance on how this year’s examination process will be carried out. After Gavin Williamson’s numerous U-turns on this subject over the last two summer exam periods, teachers, students and their families are all expecting Mr Zahawi to put forward his plans for 2021-22 at the earliest possible opportunity and here at Schools North East, we hope that they will be delivered in a way that is fair and accessible for each student in our region.
We strongly urge Mr Zahawi to visit the North East and learn more about the regional context in which the consequences of his policies will be felt. By seeing how talented, passionate and driven North East Schools are, the newly-appointed Secretary of State can see with his own eyes how his decisions will affect the pupils and staff who are now in his charge. Furthermore, it would be a golden opportunity for him to learn what it is like for teachers working day-in and day-out in the classroom, noting their daily challenges and to learn from them, as they are the profession’s experts to whom he should most closely listen.
Schools have still to be fully recognised for their part in supporting students and their communities and, indeed, in keeping education afloat during the global pandemic. By exercising a less hands-on, micro-managing approach and trusting the teaching profession, Zahawi can instill some much-needed confidence into a group of people who already go above and beyond for the students in their care. The young people of our region live in a patchwork of different contexts, and this diversity needs to be properly catered for by Mr Zahawi in his new role. Any new education policies that are put forward must take local context into consideration and be tailored with each region in mind, rather than continuing to adopt a one size fits all approach.
On a more hopeful note, the new Education Secretary stated that he’ll be listening to the children of Britain and their families “as we accelerate our work to build back better and fairer”, indicating that he believes that a simple return to how life was in March 2020 is not good enough; a message Schools North East will continue to relay as loudly as possible. His use of the word ‘fairer’ also implies that Mr Zahawi is aware that the playing field for young people is not level and that those whose educational careers begin at a disadvantage need to be given extra support in order to fulfill their potential in the same way as their more advantaged peers.
Linking education to his previous role within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was also clear in Zahawi’s statement, as he claimed that, through a strong education, individuals can secure good jobs and that this is “both vital for them and also our economy.” Many will hope that this demonstrates a focus on making things easier for school staff to provide an appropriate curriculum that will serve the needs of their pupils, so that they can earn the good jobs Mr Zahawi has referenced.
Moving into a new regime, Schools North East is here to ensure that your voice is heard.