Zahawi admits reform failures. But can he win over academy sceptics?

The education secretary speaks to Schools Week about his plans for schools, and why he doesn't want to 'play politics'

The education secretary speaks to Schools Week about his plans for schools, and why he doesn't want to 'play politics'


Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has compared the challenge of winning over multi-academy trust sceptics to converting Covid jab doubters – saying he cares about outcomes, not which badge is above the door.

The government published both its schools white paper – which sets out ambitions for all schools to be in multi-academy trusts – and the SEND green paper this week.

Both aim to right the problems caused by the Conservative government’s own reforms. The white paper admits the school system that has “evolved over the past decade is messy and often confusing”. The Conservative Party has been in power since 2010.

I’m not interested at all in playing politics with this, I’m much more interested about outcomes

Nadhim Zahawi

The white paper adds that “unclear expectations” of academies and councils “permit grey areas which have sometimes allowed vulnerable children to fall through the gaps”.

Meanwhile, Zahawi said in parliament the SEND system – based on his party’s 2014 reforms – is “failing”. He said outcomes in alternative provision were “shockingly poor”.

Speaking to MPs, Zahawi said the government would also “pay close attention to implementation, so that the mistakes of past reforms are not repeated”.

‘Not everything works perfectly’

But when challenged on this, he denied they were admissions that flagship reforms had not worked.

He said getting to 10,000 academies is “real scale” and a “huge achievement”. He also pointed to rising Ofsted grades, phonics results and international league standards.

“What I’m saying, though, is when you circle back in any system – this worked for me in business when I built YouGov, and with the vaccine – not everything works perfectly.”

He explained how as vaccines minister the government won the trust of vaccines sceptics in Tottenham, north London, by “working doubly hard to go back and gain their trust”.

“This is the same thing. It’s right to go back and actually, you know, some multi-academy trusts just weren’t high performing, and they didn’t deliver those results.”

He points to the new “coasting” proposals which will allow government to intervene in any school with successive less than ‘good’ Ofsted ratings.

The white paper’s flagship proposals of a “parent pledge” and extending the school day for the few schools that don’t already do it have been widely criticised.

There are ambitious pledges too – for 90 per cent of children leaving primary school to have reached the expected standard in reading, writing and maths (it’s currently 65 per cent); and for all schools to be in “strong” trusts. But these are to be reached by 2030 – eight years’ time.

‘I’d like to stay in the job for as long as possible’

The 2014 primary assessment reforms, introduced in 2016, set an ambitious target of 85% of pupils leaving primary with the expected standards. We’re still at 65% six years later.

So how is he personally held to account for reaching these?

“I’d like to stay in the job for as long as possible,” he said. But he admitted the ambition for the next two and a half years is to “demonstrate how we do this and do it well, with thousands of schools joining those high-performing families of schools”.

Zahawi styles himself as the “evidence-led secretary of state”. He points to figures showing the highest performing trusts outperform maintained secondaries on pupil progress.

But figures published by the Department for Education, in a document entitled The Case for a Fully Trust-led System, acknowledge that top single-academy trusts do better, and the “worst, poorest performing MATs do worse than the poorest performing” councils.

Zahawi wants to take on academy sceptics

In his pitch to academy sceptics, Zahawi said: “In the same way as saving lives with the vaccine, when something is that important – take away the politics, let’s just do the right thing.

“Follow the evidence and let’s deliver it. And that’s my message to anyone who’s willing to listen to me, whether it’s other politics or the unions.”

However, the National Education Union has already accused government of “misreporting” data to back its reforms. The union said the data “systematically misreported Ofsted grades for many schools”, with data not taking account of schools that have converted since their last inspection.

“I’m not interested at all in playing politics with this, I’m much more interested about outcomes, because I’ve got to build a system that has the trust of parents,” Zahawi said.

“And you only do that by being honest with yourself and following the evidence.”

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