The education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has commissioned a “deep-dive” into the issue of absenteeism, as the latest statistics showed more than one in ten pupils missed school last week.
Addressing a Young Conservatives event at his party conference in Manchester, Zahawi said asking the Department for Education to look at absences was “one of the first things” he did following his appointment.
The latest attendance figures suggest more than 200,000 pupils were off last week because of Covid, up 67 per cent in a fortnight.
But Zahawi is also concerned about “persistent absenteeism”, with attendance rates at around 95 per cent pre-pandemic, and now down below 90 per cent. Covid-related absence only accounted for 2.5 per cent of pupils last week.
“What I want to do is with Ofsted look at what themes have emerged from their inspections as to what good practice looks like.
“Why can some schools, very similar demographics, get really high levels of attendance. How do they engage with the student, with the family, versus others that have struggled with attendance.”
Ministers tasked with ’embedding technology’
The education secretary also revealed he had tasked his ministers at the DfE with finding ways to “embed technology into the education process”, when asked about hybrid models of learning.
He said during his stint as children’s minister, the department had looked at “what technology was emerging at the time that could enhance both the learning experience but also the workload of teachers”.
“We had Google Classroom, Microsoft, but also some really interesting start-ups around marking, around modules in terms of content, lesson content, and of course we saw during the pandemic I guess the necessities that mother all inventions.”
He said the Oak National Academy had been “incredibly successful, so I’m looking to see how I can build on that”.
“If you think about an average teacher’s week, they work about 49 hours a week. 20 hours of that is face time teaching. If I can take away some of that through some technological enhancements that can only be a good thing.
“Any innovation is something I’m very open to, and I’ve given my whole ministerial team the target of going out and looking at how we embed technology into the education process.”
Zahawi wants to ‘scale’ academies
Zahawi also signalled his desire to further “scale” the academies sector, indicating the DfE will continue to pursue growth under his tenure.
He said the academy process had worked “really well”, and warned that proposals from Labour to end charity status for private schools would put additional pressure on the maintained sector.
He was quizzed about proposals, unveiled by Sir Keir Starmer last weekend, to remove the VAT and business rates exemption for private schools in a bid to raise £1.7 billion a year for the maintained sector,
But Zahawi said Starmer was “wrong”, and warned that putting independent schools out of business would “add more pressure on what is the bulk of the education system, that I need to make sure we continue on the journey of improvement”.
“What’s worked really well is the academy process. Multi-academy trusts have done a tremendous job. How do I scale that even further? We’re about to reach our 10,000th academy school. That is proper scale now.
“That should be the focus of any secretary of state, to make sure that the maintained sector has the wherewithal to deliver.”
His comments indicate the government will continue to pursue its ambition to get all schools into academy trusts – a policy outlined by Zahawi’s predecessor Gavin Williamson earlier this year.