Zahawi: I'll put wellbeing at heart of schools policy

Education secretary also vows to tackle pupils' persistent absenteeism head-on, in speech to school leaders' conference

John Roberts

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi is encouraging Covid vaccination for school students

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi will tell headteachers today that he will "put wellbeing at the centre of everything we do in schools alongside a drive for rigorous standards".   

Mr Zahawi will also tell headteachers at the NAHT school leaders’ union's annual conference that he has "vowed" to get to the root of what is causing pupils to be persistently absent.

And the education secretary will say that although he will not “provide a running commentary on the spending review”, he will “not stop making the case for investing in children and young people”.

Headteachers' plea: School leaders urge Nadhim Zahawi to listen to avoid past 'mistakes'

School absenceMore than 200,000 pupils off because of Covid

Nadhim Zahawi: 'We won't let school attendance fall'

His comments come after NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman urged the government to back its rhetoric on "levelling up" with action.

In one of his first major speeches as education secretary, Mr Zahawi will say: “Perhaps one of the most crucial commitments, certainly as far as I’m concerned, is that we do far more for vulnerable children and make sure they have the support they need to succeed.

“For me, this is about children with SEND, or those who are looked after, getting as many opportunities as their peers.

Nadhim Zahawi pledges to focus on student wellbeing

"It is about acknowledging that we must close the disadvantage gap and do the best by every single child by focusing on the outcomes for every single child.

“And that means mental health must be better understood and support provided where it’s needed. I want us to put wellbeing at the centre of everything we do in schools alongside a drive for rigorous standards and high performance.

“But, of course, we can’t do this if children are not at school, so another key priority for me will be getting to the root of what is causing children to be persistently absent and then tackling it head-on.

"Because the children who lose out the most from not being in school are likely to be the ones who can cope least; the vulnerable, the disadvantaged… You can't help them if they aren't there.

“I will be tireless in pursuing all these issues to deliver a world-class education for all children, because it is the only way we can escape the quicksand of disadvantage.”

Mr Zahawi will also confirm plans, announced at the Conservative Party conference, for a new education White Paper.

He will say the government needs to “end illiteracy and innumeracy and make sure that no child leaves primary school unable to read or without a grasp of mathematics'.

He will add: “Then we’ll continue a relentless focus on literacy and numeracy throughout secondary school.

“Our job is to make sure that we have a skilled and agile workforce who can help us power through the aftermath of the pandemic.

“So that means no easing up on our plans to ensure any child who fell behind during the pandemic makes up their lost learning, as we build on the recovery programmes already in place.”

Promise to 'listen' to school leaders

The education secretary will tell school leaders that he will “listen” and work with them, and he will say he will be “honest” with them.

Mr Zahawi will say: “This will not always be an easy journey for us. I know that leadership can be a lonely place at times.

“There will have been sleepless nights, worrying about the children in your schools.

“I know all about sleepless nights, having just worked as vaccines minister.”

His comments come after Mr Whiteman warned the education secretary not to exhaust school leaders’ goodwill by making engagement with the profession “nothing more than window dressing”.

Mr Whiteman highlighted the “false and damaging narrative” that some policymakers had used amid the pandemic that suggested teachers were “lazy”.

The union chief called for the government’s goals for education recovery for children who have missed out on schooling to be more “ambitious”.

In June the education recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, quit with a stinging condemnation of the government’s £1.4 billion education recovery fund – after recommending a much bigger funding pot.

Addressing education recovery at the conference on Friday, Mr Whiteman said: “When you think of what young people really need from schools and colleges in the coming months and years, we need more – not less.

“Knowing how much school leaders have given during the crisis, and how difficult circumstances were in many ways before the pandemic, what I’ve heard so far from policymakers is very meek.

“Recovery implies a return to what we had before, which is simply not good enough.”

Mr Whiteman also highlighted concerns about school funding and the public sector pay freeze – which he described as a “slap in the face”.

Addressing the education secretary’s comments, Mr Whiteman said: “There is ambition contained in his address, but unsurprisingly, after only two weeks in office, we are yet to see the detail.

“Our plea to the new secretary of state is to enter into genuine collaboration with us so that we can bring the ambition of his speech to life, free of dogmatic philosophical barriers.

“Now he has had the chance to address school leaders directly at our conference, we hope this will be the springboard for the type of education system we know this country needs.”

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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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