INTERVIEW: MP Nadhim Zahawi on his new role as Secretary of State for Education
After winning praise for overseeing an efficient vaccine rollout, Stratford MP Nadhim Zahawi has been appointed Secretary of State for Education. Here he tells Gill Sutherland about the challenges of his new role. But first he paid a visit of apology to King Edward VI School.
THE last time the Herald was due to meet Nadhim Zahawi he stood us up. We weren’t alone – hundreds of students, parents and staff at King Edward VI School waited for him to arrive as the guest of honour for the school’s Speech Day on 16th September.
All was forgiven though when he visited the school on Friday to meet with the head and students, and the Herald was invited along.
As excuses go, being kept waiting by the PM ahead of him appointing you Secretary of State for Education is a pretty good one.
As he shakes sixth-formers’ hands, swapping congratulations in KES’s picturesque quad on a bright windless day, goodwill is at maximum. Nadhim is a natural charmer. A polished politician, he’s good at remembering names and is friendly and attentive.
Addressing the small gathering, he said in earnest: “Thank you everyone and I’m sorry I missed Speech Day, but I had a good excuse I was just explaining to the headmaster, and I think you’ll let me off.”
There’s an ebullience to his appeal that would be churlish not to comply with.
KES headmaster Bennet Carr is in agreement, telling the Herald the next day: “We were grateful that Mr Zahawi took the time to come and see us after last week’s Speech Day and, in doing so, he provided a salutary lesson. Although it was clearly an unfortunate series of events beyond his direct control, he accepted full responsibility for his absence and wanted to give his apologies in person. It was good to be able to welcome him back to the school, albeit later than expected, and to offer him our congratulations and the best of luck in his new role.
“There are numerous intractable challenges in education so he is likely to need it!”
After posing for photos the new minister settles on a bench for a quick ten-minute interview about his new role.
As suspected, Nadhim confirms it was his success with the vaccines that landed him the coveted new role.
“You get a call to say can you come to No 10,” began Nadhim on how the process of the reshuffle happens. “The prime minister said, ‘You’ve done a fantastic job on vaccines, not only on delivery but also in terms of communicating to the nation how important vaccination is.’”
Boris Johnson apparently then emphasised the need to “deliver on skills”. “He said he wanted me to deliver that and that we need to deliver catch up,” added Nadhim. “That’s incredibly important. And the amount of disruption that students have had to put up with because of the pandemic needs real attention.”
Taking over the minister role from Gavin Williamson – who was sacked after being widely criticised for his disastrous handling of exams during the pandemic – Nadhim has previous good form in the Department for Education.
He joined Theresa May’s government as minister for children and families in the 2018 cabinet reshuffle. Following Mr Johnson’s appointment as prime minister, he was appointed Parliamentary under-secretary of state for business and industry. He really made his mark in government when he was appointed ‘vaccine minister’ in 2020.
Talking about his past successes, Nadhim also recalls his time as ‘apprenticeships tsar’ under David Cameron when he delivered the the apprenticeship reforms and the levy.
“I think the PM is basing his trust in me to be able to do the same level of effective delivery,” said Nadhim.
His enthusiasm in taking on the role is palpable. He continued: “Education is full of clever and committed people, from the government department to teachers. You go into education because you are passionate about it. For a secretary of state it is a fantastic opportunity to get to work with smart and committed people. I am looking forward to working with the whole state to deliver great outcomes.”
While that may sound like the familiar patter of a newly appointed minister, Nadhim comes across as genuine when he recalls his own experiences as a refugee benefitting from a British education.
He said: “When this 11-year-old arrived on these shores in 1978 and couldn’t speak a word of English, I had two parents who understood the value of education, and therefore pushed me hard to make sure I got a good education. I picked up the language and now I am secretary of state for education.
“I want the system to work for the 11-year-old whose parents don’t have the wherewithal to do the same thing for them.”
There’s no doubt the new minister has a big task ahead of him and failure doesn’t seem to be an option he is considering… And as one local teacher observed “he can’t make more of a shambles of it than Williamson”.
So what will his priorities be?
“Obviously, there are a lot of things that need addressing. We need to make sure we get the return of exams right. Skills training is going to be front and centre and that goes all the way up to university. I’m focused on making sure we come through the autumn and that schools remain open and that we make it through the year.
“It’s a tribute to teachers and support staff that 99 per cent of schools are open and as of last week there is 91 per cent attendance. I’ve got to make sure that we continue to do that because there is nothing like face-to-face education.”
On local social media one of the complaints about the Stratford MP is that he’s not visible enough, with many commenting that he needs to do more for his constituency. This concern is bound to become more vocal as Nadhim takes on his new demanding role, but he is full of assurances.
“It’s always a priority,” he said of the constituency. “The great thing about our system is that it allows secretaries of state to spend time in their constituencies on a Friday, like we are today. I’ve always made sure in the 11 years that I have been privileged to be the member of parliament for Stratford-Upon-Avon to always be responsive to my constituents. They are at the centre of my priorities.”
SEE THE HEAD
Nadhim answers questions submitted by local headmasters
How will you ensure that the A-Levels and GCSEs will not face the problems they’ve seen over the last few years?
First thing I did was get together with Ofqual. We have a very strong regulator in this country that is independent, but we work very closely together and that is something I’ll be saying more about in the coming days.
Is there still a place for selective schools like grammar schools such as KES and SGGS?
There is a place for selective schools. We have to make sure we challenge ourselves collectively by looking at the evidence to as how much more we can do for that 11-year-old that we described to you earlier that doesn’t have the parents that can support them the way other parents can. So for disadvantaged students it’s an important part of the ecosystem of education in the United Kingdom and it will remain so under my tenure and office.
With the spending review coming up from the chancellor will you be making sure that schools get their fair share?
I will certainly be fighting the corner.
What do you hope your legacy is from your time as Secretary of State for Education?