“I will listen to you,” pledged Nadhim Zahawi in an open letter to the sector published on the day he assumed the role of education secretary. An encouraging start. And the success of the national vaccine rollout which he oversaw is also encouraging. Education needs the same level of pace and commitment if the country is to truly emerge from the pandemic stronger for the long term.
Because the scale of the challenge is equally daunting. The UK stands increasingly alone in the world. It will need its next generations of school leavers to be the best-educated on the planet in order to compete.
But there’s good news for Mr Zahawi too, because if the past 19 months have taught us anything it is that schools deliver. The profession knows what it is doing and it is trustworthy.
Sadly, the DfE’s pre-reshuffle attempts at “listening” seldom included hearing from critical friends. This political echo chamber was a problem even before the pandemic. It led to mistakes and U turns, leaving many in the profession exhausted and downright angry. There is little good will left, and if this promise to listen is just more window dressing, that too will soon be exhausted.
But if it’s genuine, then school leaders and their teams are ready to work with the new DfE leadership. Change is desperately needed, and we know it can only be achieved by working together. It was on the rare occasions when we were consulted properly that things went well. And as much as it might offend DfE sensibilities, when it came to implementation, things went even better when education professionals took the lead.
So it’s time to park those sensibilities. The public accounts committee declared that the DfE has become institutionally unable to learn the lessons of the pandemic in real time. It is absolutely essential that this changes under Mr Zahawi’s leadership. The country simply can’t afford for the DfE to remain a “department of concern”. For the sake of every young person currently in the system, it must become a post-pandemic success story.
The prime minister promised that no child would be left behind due to learning lost during the pandemic. That’s now Mr Zahawi’s responsibility, and if that sounds like setting the bar unrealistically high, in fact it’s probably too low to secure the nation’s prosperity.
He has talked about “academic excellence and skills that lead to brilliant jobs”. Everyone working in schools knows how much that matters, but they also know their role is about so much more than that. Children’s wellbeing and social cohesion are fraying. School is one place a young person can find security, support and a sense of purpose.
And Mr Zahawi knows this personally. He has talked about arriving in the UK from Iraq as a child speaking little English, and the important role teachers played in helping him to adapt. If he is given time on the Conservative Party conference platform this week, I hope he will use it to hold out an olive branch to school leaders and their teams. We will be listening avidly.
But in truth, educators will also have their eyes and ears on a second speech. Worryingly, we’ve heard this week that the chancellor is preparing to rein in government, with education rumoured to be hardest hit. There’s really no other way to say it: plaudits from Mr Zahawi need to be matched by pounds from Mr Sunak. The education secretary’s challenge is to make the case that funding nurseries, schools and colleges is an investment in this country’s future, not simply a drain on its finances.
Let’s be honest: talk of recovery is really symptomatic of a lack of ambition. What our young people deserve is for us to build a system that is stronger and fairer than the one we know. That’s more than recovery. To borrow the Conservative slogan, it’s about “building back better”. And that’s about much more than money, but it will take some.
So while Mr Zahawi listens to the profession, this week the profession will also be listening to Mr Sunak.