Schools should be more patriotic, and 8 more things we learned from Zahawi

Minister tells MPs white paper will narrow the attainment gap and he's 'open-minded' about where council MATs can open

Minister tells MPs white paper will narrow the attainment gap and he's 'open-minded' about where council MATs can open

20 Apr 2022, 14:15

The education secretary was quizzed by MPs on his schools reform plans, promoting patriotism in the classroom and proposals to boost attendance.

Nadhim Zahawi appeared in front of the Parliamentary education committee for a wide-ranging session this morning.

Here’s what we learned.

1. Zahawi ‘confident’ white paper will narrow attainment gap

The education secretary faced questions about the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers.

The gap has started to widen in recent years, and this has been exacerbated by the Covid pandemic.

But Zahawi claimed the plans in his schools white paper held the key to narrowing the gap again, referring to the need to “scale” up the success of “high-performing” academy trusts.

“I think we know what the ingredients are to get it to close. I’m confident if I can deliver this white paper we will absolutely make a big dent in that gap, if not close it completely.”

2. Schools should be ‘unashamedly’ patriotic

Zahawi was asked by Conservative committee member Tom Hunt whether he shared the view that young people should be “proud to be British and that on the whole, we’re a force for good”.

Hunt said he would like to see patriotism “promoted in our schools unashamedly”.

Zahawi said he “absolutely” shared Hunt’s view, adding: “In my view this is the greatest country on earth”.

“Our values, British values, being taught in schools are incredibly important”, he said, adding that it was “heartening” to visit schools and see them making a “big deal” of British values.

3. 6-month target for moving failing schools

The schools white paper proposed new standards for academy trusts, along with new statutory intervention powers.

Andrew McCully, the DfE’s director general for schools, told the committee this morning these powers would allow the government to “intervene directly at the multi-academy trust level”.

Asked how long it would take to turn around failing schools, McCully said the new powers and increased capacity in other trusts, mean “we can do that increasingly quickly”.

“The objective of an under-performing school is to do that within five to six months.”

Many schools were left for years without intervention, including one waiting for over a decade.

4. Council MATs could be allowed in areas with strong trusts

The white paper pledged a right for councils to launch MATs, but only in areas “where too few strong trusts exist”.

However Zahawi said today he was “open-minded” when asked whether councils in areas with high-performing trusts would be prevented from setting up their own.

He said the policy on council MATs was the result of “learning from the past”, and in particular, the failed bid in 2016 to force all schools to become academies.

“I’m open-minded when it comes to how that ultimately will operate on the ground. I just don’t believe that it’s fair to exclude a high-performing local authority that is delivering great outcomes for students from this journey.”

5. Academy reforms and child register could be in Queen’s Speech

MPs were told today that key planks of the government’s reforms may feature in this year’s Queen’s Speech, meaning they would be prioritised for legislation in the next Parliamentary year.

McCully said the legislation on academy accountability “I hope, subject to the Queen’s Speech, will be with you shortly”.

He added that the “all-important register of children missing education needs legislation to back that, and that, subject to the final decisions on the Queen’s Speech is on the cards”.

6. DfE working with EHRC on sex and gender guidance

Zahawi revealed today that his department is working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission on new guidance on how to approach issues around sex and gender in schools.

The new guidance will “allow the frontline to feel that they have the backing and confidence of the department to make those decisions and make them confidently by safeguarding the characteristics of minority students as well as the other children in their care”.

7. Do EIAs spell the end of opportunity areas?

Since announcing 55 new “education investment areas”, which include all 12 of the existing social mobility opportunity areas, the DfE has remained tight-lipped on the future of its original policy.

But Zahawi today suggested the scheme would be superseded. He told MPs he didn’t want “to lose all the great work” from opportunity areas, so pitched “building on” them to levelling up secretary Michael Gove.

“So what we are doing is we are taking the best evidence of what worked in the opportunity areas and embedding it in the education investment areas.”

8. Zahawi to publish reforms timeline

Zahawi wants to publish an “operational chart” of timelines for the delivery of reforms. He held up a document but did not say when this would be released. 

“I’ve done the policy making, but operationally I want to publish that your committee can see, the world can see what our targets are and our timelines for delivery against this. 

“It’s what I did on vaccines because data and transparency is my ally on this journey.”

9. DfE ‘more interested’ in Latin than attendance

Education committee chair Robert Halfon chided Zahawi for spending nearly the same amount on Latin in schools as boosting attendance of pupils. 

The Latin excellence programme will be run by Future Academies with a £4 million contract, while a trial to mentor persistently absent pupils is just £5 million

Halfon said “it seems to me that not a lot is being done” to get so-called “ghost children” back into schools, accusing Zahawi of being “more interested in funding Latin which is the same amount – just £1 million more to fund this.”

Zahawi says the white paper sets out “very clearly” how schools and councils should support high attendance. 

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