Five things Nadhim Zahawi needs to master immediately
Actions, not words, will determine whether the new Secretary of Education, Nadim Zahawi, is good, says Tom Bewick:
The Grand Chef is no more! Long live the Secretary of State for Education! That’s how I felt about the news this week of Gavin Williamson leaving seventh-floor headquarters, which many will simply call Sanctuary Buildings, SW1.
Now, of course, it’s up to historians to decide how “second-rate” Minister Gavin Williamson was. But make no mistake: it wasn’t just the thousands of people who work at FE who were eager to see the back of the former Scarborough student in sixth grade. Stalwart Tories, many of whom subscribe to the Tory House website, consistently rank him last among his cabinet colleagues. The bar chart was so far off scale in August that a poor old graphic designer had to make a tiny font size just to fit in all of the negative territory.
Between the new broom, Nadhim Zahawi: the 54th secretary of education since World War II. At first glance, the refugee child who arrived here at the age of 9 from Iraq is an inspired choice. Zahawi is a multi-millionaire businessman, through his own entrepreneurial efforts, having co-founded the political polling company YouGov. For parents who admire diligent life achievers (and I am one of them); it really is a pleasure to welcome someone to the education ministry who clearly knows a thing or two about hard work and instilling a culture of aspiration.
By representing Shakespeare’s birthplace in the Commons, one can only hope that Zahawi will write a new chapter with the FE sector; perhaps more in the sense of the heroic successes against thick and thin of Henry V, than of the terrible fate of Richard II. (Look for these two historical figures and make up your own mind).
Because one thing is certain: the new Secretary of State’s honeymoon period will not last very long if he allows the officials around him to simply lead the DfE politics monster into a state of disrepair. “business as usual” spirit.
Here are five things Nadhim Zahawi needs to master immediately:
1. Departmental culture
One need only watch an episode of Yes Minister to know that the Education Ministry has a long standing reputation for Stalinism. Seasoned observers will tell you that this dates back to the time of Sir Keith Joseph and was a reaction of leftist teacher unions and bureaucrats to New Right education policies.
Others point to the centralized takeover that began in the 1980s when local government (especially militant labor councils) could not be trusted to make improvements in education standards.
Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that the answer to all the skills and productivity challenges under successive governments over the past 40 years has been for the Mandarins of Whitehall to tell ministers they had need more power.
Imagine how refreshing it would be if Zahawi said that one of his main goals as Secretary of State would be to eventually leave the department with less power in the hands of its officials (and much more power in the hands of its officials). learners, parents and local communities) only in its early stages.
2. Expenditure review
This may be the first major material test of credibility. This is where all the warm words and platitudes about the importance of FE skills and colleges collide with the unwavering reality of a decade of underfunding of FE from the treasury.
The respected independent think tank, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, calculated the numbers; there is therefore no argument that FE expenditure per student has been reduced by 7% in real terms since 2010.
The big question is whether Zahawi will take on Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak on the matter, making it clear that you can’t build a world-class skill system on the cheap. As the tax burden is about to hit its highest level in peacetime history, can it win the government’s argument that one way to increase real wages is to properly improve wages? skills of UK workers? in particular by recycling some of these increases in social charges into targeted tax breaks and incentives for retraining and more apprenticeships?
In return, Zahawi could win the praise of his colleagues for putting an end to the waste and inefficiency which has multiplied in recent years around the centralizing state of powers; including the obvious duplication and waste of having two separate quangos engaged in the reform of technical skills.
3. Skills invoice
It’s hard to find someone in the industry who really thinks this flagship bill is fit for purpose right now.
To come back to my remarks on cultural Stalinism which governs the way of doing departments; the skills bill, as currently drafted, represents a new culmination of top-down technocracy that Whitehall knows best.
For example, local skills improvement plans, oddly enough, cannot be approved locally. They must be submitted to the DfE for approval. Metro mayors are largely bystanders in the process, with Whitehall flouting local democratic accountability.
The chapter on qualifications and regulatory reform completely disrupts the previously unbroken line of accountability to Parliament for public confidence in all qualifications, i.e. which currently exists through Ofqual. Instead, a trainer and horses are guided by this principle by giving the Institute of Technical Learning and Education new powers to regulate and approve technical qualifications in the future.
Oddly enough, ministers don’t seem to see any conflict of interest in the same agency also procuring and certifying its own state-backed qualifications, such as T-Levels. The Institute argues that these costly and bureaucratic reforms are necessary to ensure the “voice of employers” in the system.
As a seasoned businessman, Zahawi should instinctively know how to cut through all the bluster and nonsense. I mean, the idea that employers can really have a very tangible influence on the direction of skills policy, through a public agency made up of people who have never experienced working life outside of the cozy world of the sector. public, is in itself a laughable proposition. But will ministers have the courage to challenge their officials on the issue?
If Zahawi doesn’t order a major overhaul of the skills bill before it hits the House of Commons, it may be an early sign that the Secretary of State has already gone native with what Michael Gove called the famous Goutte.
4. Market choice in post-16 education is really important
Who would have thought under a Conservative government that this paragraph even had to be written? But as the Protect Student Choice campaign will tell you, the government is seriously on the path to quashing many proven professional and technical qualifications in favor of a binary choice system of A-Levels or T-Levels from September 2023. .
Over 80 percent of the industry, in a government consultation, said it was a terrible idea. Even the ministry’s own impact assessment said it would be detrimental to disadvantaged students and those with special educational needs.
Yet the DfE seems to be sinking into some sort of Orwellian ministry of truth, a world of denial and double talk. Imagine how refreshing it would be if the new ministers didn’t get up at the shipping box and just read the summary responses prepared for them in the briefings of the officials.
Instead, they decided to pick up part of the whole rationale for this set of reforms (Sainsbury Panel 2016) that were written before Brexit, before the pandemic, and for a world that simply no longer exists. But will free-market liberal Zahawi grab the mantle and insist that the state competes fairly alongside other proven credentials?
Given the timing of the next general election, when will MPs have to explain to their constituents why the government is removing the 16-19 learner choice, are we witnessing a political train wreck?
5. Listening to the FE sector is not the same as acting on what we have to say
With every major overhaul, you read the same old stuff that comes out of various high-level bodies. Maybe it’s because we are an optimistic bunch.
When we hear a minister say he cares about EF and skills, we think he really means it. And we also anticipate that they will correct a decade of underfunding in the sector.
When we complain about being infantilized by overzealous government officials, we expect our political leaders to show courage and say, enough is enough. Not all decisions can be made in SW1. Not all programs and approvals can be executed through a set of quangos.
If lifelong learning is to mean anything, it must begin with personal responsibility and the real empowerment of individuals and their communities. No one developed a love of learning because a press release or government website told them to.
So, Secretary of State, what will it be?
Are you the kind of politician willing to break away from Whitehall’s top-down obsessions, take back control and give it to the people? Or will you end your tenure in the sanctuary buildings like Gavin Williamson did, where the industry has never quite managed to reconcile actual acts and achievements in power, with the words that come out of your mouth.
I guess only time will tell.
Tom Bewick, Managing Director of the Federation of Awarding Bodies
Tom is also the presenter of the Skills World Live Radio Show broadcast by FE News.
The series resumes Friday, September 24 at 10:30 a.m.