Any incoming education secretary faces major challenges upon taking on one of the most important roles in government.
But the to-do list that waits Nadhim Zahawi is perhaps longer and more important than almost any of his predecessors have faced – not least because he starts as the new Secretary of State from a position in which there is almost no trust between the education sector and the government.
He does, at least, have the opportunity for a fresh start. While he has previous experience as children’s minister he has said little on schools or colleges before, so he will have the space to make a first impression.
He won’t have long to do this though as the DfE’s spending review submission has already been sent to the Treasury and will have been focused on Gavin Williamson’s priorities.
Whatever deal is reached will set spending plans in place for the next three years so Zahawi has a very limited window to consider what his areas of focus might be.
For example, schools and colleges have been given almost no resources to support their pupils in recovering learning lost during lockdowns, bar a faltering National Tuition Programme.
The government rejected Sir Kevan Collins’ £10bn plan early in the summer and, despite hints from the Prime Minister at the time that additional cash would be forthcoming, there has been nothing since.
A group of sector organisations and academies trusts recently proposed a £6bn package focused on additional funding for the most disadvantaged which should be at the top of Zahawi’s reading pile.
Elsewhere, many nurseries are struggling for solvency with DfE-funded fee rates too low to manage high-quality care and rising staff costs. It is increasingly unviable for nurseries in low income communities to offer free hours without top ups from richer parents to subsidise provision.
As well as defining priorities for the spending review period, the Treasury will also be expecting savings, especially from higher education, and Zahawi will need to decide whether to reduce remaining taxpayer funding to universities; or cut numbers (probably by setting a formal academic entry bar); or increase loan repayments.
The most likely is a cut in numbers but a minimum GCSE target to get a university place would put even more pressure on school assessment.
None of these options feel hugely palatable.
Curriculum and assessment
Assessment will be another topic Zahawi will have to engage with quickly. He will need have to make a decision in the next few weeks about next year’s exams – and what standard they’ll be graded against.
Does he want to reverse the grade increases of the last two years and go back to the standard used when proper exams were last taken in 2019?
Or protect this year’s students by keeping grades higher at the cost of “baking in” inflation?
It’s worth noting on this that Zahawi is close to Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee, who has been pushing a more dramatic overhaul of assessment, potentially even scrapping GCSEs. It will be interesting to see how influential he is on Zahawi’s thinking.
Halfon is also an advocate of greater focus on technology in the classroom and on employment skills, which would fit with Zahawi’s business background.
With Nick Gibb gone too we may see changes in the Department’s approach to curriculum thinking with more noise around innovation and soft skills and less around basics and tradition.
Education white paper proposals
The DfE were already in the early stages of planning a schools White Paper for early next year, which would be a good opportunity for Zahawi to offer a coherent take on the overall reform agenda, which has drifted along since Michael Gove left, with little clarity over aims and objectives.
There are big questions around the role of local authorities; the legal status of individual schools and how best to support academy trusts to grow and improve.
It’s clear from all of the above that Zahawi has a lot of work ahead of him.
Perhaps the silver lining – for him at least – is that he takes over from Gavin Williamson, someone who, while being dealt a tough hand by the pandemic, played that hand with all the panache of a toddler eating spaghetti.
It's always nice to start a job knowing it would be hard to make things worse, though if he’s going to deal with the challenges ahead he’ll have to do a lot more than clear that low bar.
Sam Freedman is a former senior policy adviser at the DfE and a senior fellow at the Institute of Government