Deeds not words will mark out whether the new education secretary, Nadim Zahawi, is any good, says Tom Bewick:
The Great Leader is no more! Long live the secretary of state for education! That’s how I felt about the news this week of Gavin Williamson’s departure from the seventh floor headquarters that will be known to many as simply, Sanctuary Buildings, SW1.
Now, of course, it’s for historians to decide just how “second-rate” a minister Gavin Williamson was. But make no mistake: it’s not just the thousands who work in FE who could not wait to see the back of the former Scarborough sixth-form college student. The Tory faithful, many of whom subscribe to the Conservative Home website, had him consistently trailing in last place amongst his cabinet colleagues. The bar-chart was so far off the scale in August that some poor old graphic designer had to create a miniscule font size just to squeeze all the negative territory in.
Enter new broom, Nadhim Zahawi: the 54th education secretary since the second world war. On the face of it, the refugee child who came here as a 9-year-old from Iraq is an inspired choice. Zahawi is a multi-millionaire businessman, thanks to his own entrepreneurial efforts, having co-founded the political polling company YouGov. For parents who look up to life’s diligent achievers (and I’m one of them); it’s genuinely a pleasure to welcome someone at the Department for Education 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 along the lines of the heroical against-all-the-odds successes of Henry V, than the terrible fate of Richard II. (Look up those two historical figures and make up your own mind).
Because one thing is for sure: the new secretary of state’s honeymoon period will not last very long if he allows the officials around him to simply steer the behemoth that is DfE policy into a “business as usual” mindset.
Here are five things Nadhim Zahawi needs to immediately get a grip on:
1. Departmental Culture
You only have to watch an episode of Yes Minister to know that the education department has a long-standing reputation for Stalinism. Seasoned observers will tell you that it goes back to the days of Sir Keith Joseph and was a reaction by leftie teaching unions and bureaucrats to New Right education policies.
Others point to the centralised power-grab that began in the 1980s as local government (particularly militant Labour councils) couldn’t be trusted to deliver on improvements in education standards.
Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that the answer to every skills and productivity challenge under successive governments over the past 40 years, has been for Whitehall mandarins to tell ministers they need more power.
Just imagine how refreshing it would be if Zahawi came out and said that one of his primary aims as secretary of state will be to eventually leave the department with less power in the hands of his officials (and a lot more power in the hands of learners, parents and local communities) than when he started.
2. Spending Review
This is possibly the first big material test of credibility. It is where all the warm words and platitudes about the importance of skills and FE colleges collides smack bang with the hardnosed reality of a decade of underfunding in FE by the Treasury.
The respected independent think-tank, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has crunched the numbers; so there can be no argument about the fact FE spending per student has been cut by 7% in real terms since 2010.
The big question is will Zahawi face down Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak on the issue, making it clear that you can’t build a world-class skills system on the cheap. With the tax burden about to reach its highest in peacetime history, can he win the argument across government that one way to grow real wages is to properly upgrade British workers’ skills; not least by recycling some of those payroll tax rises into targeted tax breaks and incentives for retraining and more apprenticeships?
In return, Zahawi could win plaudits from his colleagues for taking an axe to the waste and inefficiency that has been growing around the centralising skills state in recent years; including the obvious duplication and waste of having two separate quangos engaged in technical qualifications reform.
3. Skills Bill
It is hard to find anyone in the sector who really thinks this flagship piece of legislation is currently fit for purpose.
Going back to my points about the cultural Stalinism that rules the departmental way of doing things; the Skills Bill, as currently drafted, represents a new high-point of technocratic, top-down, Whitehall knows best.
For example, local skills improvement plans, rather oddly, can’t be approved locally. They must be submitted to DfE for sign-off. Metro mayors are largely spectators in the process, with Whitehall riding roughshod over local democratic accountability.
The chapter on qualifications and regulatory reform completely messes with the previously unbroken line of accountability to Parliament for public confidence in all qualifications, i.e. which currently exists via Ofqual. Instead, a coach and horses is being driven through this principle by handing the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education sweeping new powers to both regulate and approve technical qualifications in future.
Strangely, ministers appear to see no conflict of interest in the same agency also procuring and certificating its own, state-backed qualifications, like T-Levels. The Institute argues these costly and bureaucratic reforms are necessary to ensure the “employer voice” in the system.
As an experienced business person, Zahawi should instinctively know how to cut through all the bluster and baloney. I mean, the idea employers can really have much tangible influence over the direction of skills policy, via a public agency staffed full of people who have never experienced working life outside the cosseted world of the public sector, is in itself a laughable proposition. But will ministers have the courage to call their officials out on the matter?
If Zahawi doesn’t order a major re-think on the Skills Bill before it arrives in the House of Commons, then it will be an early sign, perhaps, that the secretary of state has already gone native with what Michael Gove famously called The Blob.
4. Market choice in Post-16 education really matters
Who would have thought under a Conservative government this paragraph even has to be written? But as the Protect Student Choice campaign will tell you, the government is seriously on a path to snuff out many tried and tested vocational and technical qualifications in favour of a binary choice system of A-Levels or T-Levels from September 2023.
Over 80 per cent of the sector, in a government consultation, said this was a terrible idea. Even the department’s own impact assessment said that this will be detrimental for disadvantaged students and those with special educational needs.
Yet, the DfE appears to plough on in a kind of Orwellian-style ministry of truth world of denial and double-speak. Just imagine how refreshing it would be if new ministers didn’t rise to the despatch box and simply read out pat answers put together for them in briefings from civil servants.
Instead, they decided to pick a part the whole rationale for this set of reforms (Sainsbury Panel 2016) which were written pre-Brexit, pre-pandemic and for a world that simply no longer exists. But will the free-market liberal, Zahawi, seize the mantel and insist on the state having to compete fairly alongside other tried and tested qualifications?
Given the timetable for the next general election, at which point, MPs will have to explain to their constituents why the government is taking away learner choice 16-19, are we seeing a political train wreck unfolding?
5. Listening to the FE sector is not the same as acting on what we have to say
At each major reshuffle, you read the same old stuff coming out of various peak level bodies. Maybe it’s because we’re an optimistic bunch.
When we hear a minister say they care about FE and skills we think they mean it. And we also hope in anticipation they will correct a decade of underfunding in the sector.
When we complain about being infantilised by overzealous government officials, we look to our political leaders to be brave and say, enough is enough. Not all decisions can be taken in SW1. Not all programmes and approvals can be run via a panoply of quangos.
If lifelong learning is to mean anything, it has to start with personal responsibility and real empowerment of individuals and their communities. No one developed a love of learning because a press release or a government website told them to.
So, secretary of state, what will it be?
Are you the kind of politician that is prepared to break with Whitehall’s top-down obsessions, by taking back control and giving it to the people? Or will you end your tenure in Sanctuary Buildings like Gavin Williamson did, where the sector could never quite reconcile actual deeds and achievements in office, with the words coming out of your mouth.
I guess only time will tell.
Tom Bewick, Chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies
Tom is also the presenter of the Skills World Live Radio Show broadcast by FE News.
The series restarts next Friday 24th September at 10.30am.