In his opening message as the new secretary of state Nadhim Zahawi said that this has been a time of “unprecedented strain” on education.
He was talking about the impact of Covid but the same might also be said about the relationship between his new department and schools.
Mr Zahawi is inheriting the role of education secretary in the middle of a pandemic and with uncertainty about how Covid recovery will be funded or how exams will operate from next summer and beyond.
Cabinet reshuffle: Nadhim Zahawi is new education secretary
I’m honoured @BorisJohnson has entrusted me with a new task as Secretary of State for Education.— Nadhim Zahawi (@nadhimzahawi) September 16, 2021
I would also like to thank my predecessor, @GavinWilliamson, for his hard work during a time of unprecedented strain on education, particularly schooling, in this country.
Sources close to government suggest the major reshuffle in the department is part of an attempt to put it on an election footing and to bring an end to a period where the department and its secretary of state have been seen as the source of too many negative headlines and unpopularity both among school staff and Conservative supporters.
By contrast, Mr Zahawi has overseen a high-profile success story with the rollout of the vaccine programme, which is seen as key to the country’s eventual route out of the Covid crisis.
Mr Zahawi will be the first education secretary in more than a decade to hold the post without Nick Gibb in the department as a minister, after Robin Walker was appointed to take over from the longstanding schools minister.
So what will be at the top of his inbox and what do school leaders want his priorities to be?
Nadhim Zahawi 'must show trust in school leaders'
Over the course of the pandemic, the relationship between the Department for Education and schools has become increasingly strained.
A series of controversies on exam grades, late guidance, school meal vouchers and the closure and reopening of schools culminated in a Tes poll which revealed that 95 per cent of school staff lacked trust in the Department for Education (DfE) over its handling of the virus.
School leaders say they want the new education secretary to listen to the sector.
Jules White, a West Sussex headteacher and head of the WorthLess? school funding campaign group, said: “First of all, we need to see leadership skills and a sense of trust in school leaders that has been lacking for a long time.
“We need the education secretary to reach out and listen to the sector and not just to talk to the same small number of acolytes who will tell them that they are doing everything right.
“Mr Zahawi seems to be an emollient character and a good communicator, and he will need those soft skills but it is not enough to simply say ‘thank you’ to teachers – he needs to rebuild the trust of the sector and to listen."
This view is echoed by former head and Headteachers' Roundtable member Ros McMullen.
“Firstly, he needs to recognise that headteachers are community leaders and know what is best for their communities – so much trust has been lost with last-minute guidance coming which is often inappropriate," she said. "The awful business of taking legal action over Greenwich when they entirely correctly wanted to close the schools to protect the community; the ‘one day of return’ in January 2021 are probably the worst examples, but entirely typical. Trust and respect has been broken and needs to be rebuilt.”
Carly Waterman, a headteacher in Northamptonshire, added : “Everyone uses this opportunity to say the new education secretary should do X – and while there are loads of things he should and could do, I think it’s actually much simpler than that.
"To begin with, it’s just rebuild trust. Listen, visit, learn. A key part of that trust will be to give clarity on exams and to have a contingency plan."
As Ms Waterman alludes to, the most obvious questions facing schools and the sector relate to Covid and exams.
Exams have been cancelled for the past two years but the government is determined to avoid making it three.
However, it is still to be announced how exams will be adapted to allow for learning loss during the pandemic; how exams will be graded – after two years of grades based on teacher assessment have brought much higher grades – and, perhaps most importantly, what the plan B will be if the coronavirus pandemic once again prevents GCSEs and A levels from going ahead as normal.
Ofqual and the DfE have already said these plans are in hand but after the fallout from the exams season of 2020 so badly damaged his predecessor, overseeing this process will be an all-important task for Mr Zahawi.
The other big question mark hanging over education policy is Covid recovery.
The appointment of Sir Kevan Collins as education recovery commissioner by prime minister Boris Johnson was seen as a signal of how seriously the government was taking the task of ensuring that pupils could overcome the disruption of Covid.
So Sir Kevan's resignation, after the government’s announced plans fell far short of what he said was needed, was damaging.
Sir Kevan wanted to extend the school day and had developed plans worth around £15 billion.
However, the idea of a longer day was not included in the DfE’s announcement earlier this year and is now being reviewed.
The government has signalled that it has no intention to replace Sir Kevan and so heads' leaders are asking the question of whether – with a spending review taking place soon – more money will be found for Covid recovery or if the £1.4 billion package for tutoring and teacher support announced earlier this year is as good as it is going to get.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT school leaders' union, said: “Schools will need a radically more ambitious package of investment from the Treasury in order to get the job done. Convincing the chancellor is the key.
"And whilst there will be a many different conflicting priorities at the Treasury this autumn, the case must be made that funding educational recovery is an investment in this country's future, not simply another drain on the nation’s finances."
Will Nick Gibb's exit lead to policy reform?
Although Mr Williamson was the secretary of state, it is the departure of Mr Gibb that feels more significant in terms of the future of policymaking.
He first became schools minister in 2010, working alongside Michael Gove, and although he lost the post in 2012, he was reappointed in 2014 and has been in situ ever since.
He has been seen as a driving force behind the promotion of phonics, the introduction of a new national curriculum, more rigorous exams and, most recently, the ongoing shake-up of the initial teacher training sector .
Mr Gibb’s removal has surprised some in the sector. But it is striking that his departure has led school leaders' unions to make suggestions for reform or review – which they clearly believe would have been flatly rejected had the former schools minister remained in place.
The Association of School and College Leaders' general secretary, Geoff Barton, said that the government should end its EBacc targets, look at reforming GCSEs so that they do not rely on so many exams in the summer and drop plans to overhaul the initial teacher training (ITT) sector.
While, writing for Tes, the NAHT’s director of policy, James Bowen, has suggested that now would be a good time to look at whether there needs to be as much national assessment of primary school children in place.
Without Mr Gibb, there is now a big question mark over the policy direction and traditionalist approach he has become synonymous with.
Mr Zahawi also inherits a SEND review, which has been running since September 2019 and delayed on several occasions. In addition, there has been a warning from school leaders about the need for an uplift in funding to avoid further cuts in the school workforce and concerns have been raised that any boost to teacher recruitment from the Covid pandemic will be short-lived.
In short, he inherits very many of the challenges of his past two predecessors. But as he moves to Sanctuary Buildings, it is clear that he has another very big job on his hands – one on which he will likely be judged when we examine whether we were able to recover from the long-term impact of the pandemic.