Nadhim Zahawi is under fire for passing up an invitation to the NAHT leaders’ union conference, despite being in the same town while the event was taking place.
The education secretary was invited to address and meet headteachers at the conference, taking place in Telford, Shropshire, on Friday and Saturday.
But Zahawi opted to send a pre-recorded video message instead of attending the event in-person.
However, it has emerged that Zahawi was in Telford on Friday evening to attend a political event with the area’s local Conservative party.
Telford Conservatives had advertised the “drinks and discussions” event at Telford College, just over four miles, or a 15 minute drive away from the Telford International Centre, where the conference was taking place.
The DfE said this was a “longstanding speaking commitment” arranged before be became education secretary.
Telford MP Lucy Allan tweeted pictures of the party event, calling Zahawi “inspirational”.
The education secretary was criticised by NAHT’s leadership for failing to attend in-person.
The union has tabled an emergency motion expressing “deep regret” that the government did not send a representative.
The motion also states that undertakings by Zahawi last October that he would not set an “arbitrary deadline” for academisation “appear to have been called into question by the education white paper”.
The document set a target for all schools to be in strong multi-academy trusts, or have “plans to join or form one”, by 2030.
‘Missed opportunity’ to hear from heads
Schools Week also understands the union has opted not to show his pre-recorded video to delegates.
Whiteman said it was “very disappointed that the secretary of state was not able to find the time to come and talk with school leaders this weekend”.
“Following the publication of the government’s white paper this represents a serious missed opportunity to hear directly from those he will ultimately rely on to implement the government’s proposed reforms.”
Stephen Morgan, the shadow schools minister, also said he was “surprised to hear the education secretary was able to go to Telford yesterday…but not to attend the [conference]”.
Morgan’s colleague, shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson, addressed the event his morning.
A DfE spokesperson said Zahawi had a “longstanding speaking commitment arranged by constituency office that predated his appointment as education secretary, which he rightly honoured”.
Zahawi has ‘utmost respect’ for NAHT
“He recorded a video message to be played at the event to thank NAHT for their support in helping the government deliver its ambitious plans to help every child get a great education.”
They said Zahawi had spoken in-person at the union’s policy conference in London last October. He also “meets fortnightly with the association leadership”.
“Any suggestion that NAHT are treated with anything other than the upmost respect by the secretary of state is clearly incorrect and disappointing.”
It comes after Zahawi also passed up an invitation to address the NASUWT teaching union conference in Birmingham over the Easter weekend. He did attend the annual conference of ASCL, England’s other school leaders’ union, in March.
It also comes after the government issued an edict to civil servants to return to in-person working following several periods of national lockdown.