Changing the guard at the Department for Education

Major changes in the education leadership of the government in England were part of a ‘mid-term’ reshuffle last week that appears to be a clear out in preparation for an election that might be earlier than May 2024.  The signs are not good as a largely new education team tackle a legacy of apparent chaos and indifference. The appointments consolidate further the hold that independent school and Oxbridge educated graduates have on education policy. Few will feel confident in their ability to grasp the reality facing most students. Yet the experience of the new education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi offers a glimmer of hope that he might appreciate the plight of others. For him ‘something did turn up’ at a time of great need. Hopefully his memory does not fail him. However, rebuilding bridges will be a tricky task with confidence of the sector in government at a very low level. 

Meet the new boss.

The new Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has an impressive profile as a business leader who led the vaccine roll-out during the pandemic recovery. There have been many media reports about his family and immigrant status. Indeed, it is hoped that his personal experience of education will colour his views. Additionally, he graduated from University College London with a degree in Chemical Engineering. This makes him a rare animal at the centre of government. However, the young Zahawi did not seek the experience in industry needed for Chartered Engineer status and the highly paid career that accompanies this. Instead, he embarked upon a career in business and marketing. This culminated in founding the influential and successful polling company, YouGov with his business partner, Stephan Shakespeare.  His friendship and support for, Jeffrey Archer was influential in a decision to embark on a political career in 2010 and he has not looked back.  Zahawi is extremely wealthy with a property ‘empire’ that exceeds £100 million.  Despite such wealth and excess, he still managed to fall the wrong side of the expenses scandal after claiming over £6000 per year to heat his stables in Warwickshire. This ‘error’ perhaps explains the financial acumen and attention to detail that fuelled his financial success.  Reports in April in the Daily Mail that ‘Government owned firm handed over £1m in contracts to firm with Tory MP as shareholder in pandemic’ seem to have caused little harm yet.

A paradox.

Zahawi appears paradoxical in his views, experience and wealth. Despite such wealth, there seems little doubt that Zahawi’s childhood experience must have moulded his view of education and its worth.  Although originally from a privileged background, his Kurdish family fled Iraq when he was nine years old to avoid their fate under Saddam Hussein. In an interview with The Independent in 2014, he indicated he had a “half-decent education”.  This is an odd thing to say. After a brief interlude in the state school system, he went onto attend an independent school.  His paradoxical view of education in 2014 was that “Many of my left-leaning friends will say you can’t tackle education until you tackle the challenge of poverty. I see it the other way round, you don’t tackle inequality and poverty unless you tackle education.”

Yet, the issue of resources being needed to acquire a ‘half decent education’ must have been brought home to him when he was aged eighteen. His father’s business had collapsed to bankruptcy, and they ended up seeking housing benefit and income support. However, his assertion that “I had to make a choice whether I went to university or become a cab driver to put food on the table” is a little thin.  Licenced taxi drivers must be over twenty-one to drive legally and there was no choice at eighteen.  You will not see eighteen year old student taxi drivers unless they are illegal. It also seems he has little sympathy for taxi drivers today as reported this year by the trade body TaxiPlus with  ‘Vaccine Minister Confirms Taxi and Private Hire Drivers Will Not be Prioritised’

Reports that his mother hocked the family jewels to pay for his university education also look a little thin. At that time, he was able to enter university with no fees and backed by a maintenance grant. This state provision was crucial in ensuring his success and he might reflect on that simple observation. Instead, he seems intent on supporting cuts to benefits and piling more pressure on those least able to fend for themselves. 

Despite supporting three children himself, in 2013 the Daily Mirror reported that ‘Nadhim Zahawi says families should only be able to claim benefits for TWO children’. It appears his memory had failed him. This memory loss is also exemplified by his attitude to the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) in 2011 that previously supported 16 to18 year old students staying in education. He strongly backed the EMA  abolition in parliament with a frivolity that angered some.  Fending off pleas on behalf of students needing the money for transport and essential books, he ploughed on to the tune of a novelty tie he had donned for the occasion. He was  obliged to apologise.

Joining an elite club.

Zahawi joins an elite of independent school educated ministers  (half decent we hope) that should be shameful if it wasn’t so brazen.  The Sutton Trust pulled no punches in reviewing the sorry situation last week with ‘A Reshuffled Cabinet, The Same Diversity Problem’ pointing out that 60% of the cabinet went to independent schools, while 93% of the population have to make do with state schools.  But it gets worse with an astounding 47% attending Oxford or Cambridge and 27% going to independent schools followed by Oxbridge.

Considering the education and university remit, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Amanda Solloway has moved to the position of Government Chief Whip. She attended a state school and did not go to university. She has been conveniently replaced by independent school educated and Cambridge graduate, George Freeman.

Responsibility for schools was a ‘like for like’ exchange. The former schools minister and veteran, Nick Gibb went to an  independent/grammar School and Durham University. He has been replaced by Robin Walker who is independent school educated and an Oxford modern history graduate.

Interestingly, Walker is vice chairman of the f40 cross-party campaign for fairer school funding. However, if the government ends up cutting additional funding for the least advantaged schools to the level of the most advantaged, then it would be a perverse outcome. Yet this appears to be happening. The National Audit Office  with ‘School funding in England’ (pdf in full) looked closely at funding arrangements from 2017-18 that appear to have radically diluted the ‘Opportunity Areas’ initiative of former Education Secretary, Justine Greening back in 2016. The report concluded “There has been a shift in the balance of funding from more deprived to less deprived local areas”.  The report goes on to observe “since 2017-18, average per-pupil funding for the most deprived fifth of schools has fallen in real terms by 1.2 per cent to £5,177, while for the least deprived fifth it has risen by 2.9 per cent to £4,4712” (see also TEFS 16th July 2021 ‘Levelling up: True Blue or just a bit faded?’ )

Sole survivor.

The surprise is the survival of Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, who is state school educated and a York history and politics gradate. However, there is a twist. Her remit has been expanded to being responsible for “strategy for post-16 education”.  This is “jointly with Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills”, a post now held by newly promoted Alex Burghart. He is independent school educated and an Oxford history graduate.

This merger of responsibilities deserves more attention than it is getting. It most likely heralds the unchallenged transfer of resources from the Universities to the Further Education Colleges. Watch this space.

Preparing for the next election.

It appears that the government is becoming distracted by plans for the next election earlier than expected. Indications that an election could come upon us as early as May 2023 are emerging. The Telegraph wasn’t shy in reporting that Oliver Dowden, the new Conservative Party Chairman told staff last week that the “fight for votes starts now, with a poll as little as 20 months away”

Yet the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 means that the election should be in May 2024.  However, this is likely to be overturned soon with passing of the ‘Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (Repeal) Bill’.  This prospect has been lurking outside in the dark since December 2020 and slipped in via the House of Lords in February.  It would give the Prime minister the chance to call an election at a time of his choosing.

To ensure a better chance of winning, the government might have needed to push on fast with the boundary commission review. Initially the plan was to reduce the number of parliamentary seats from 650 to 600, and freeze out Labour in many areas as a result. However, in July this was reversed in the ‘Boundary Review 2023: Changes to consultation and implementation’. The review was only launched in May of this year and will not report until June 2023 in time for a May 2024 election. Although  the commission accepts “There are likely to be big changes even though the overall number of seats is staying at 650”, there would still be some impact on the opposition, albeit to a much lesser extent (see ‘New Constituency Boundaries for 2023’).  This obviates the need to wait for an election in 2024 and might partially explain the current exchanges in government.

The challenges are mounting.

Wherever the government looks from its citadel at No10, it seems there is turmoil and uncertainty. Any plans for education will be buffeted on all sides. The new Education Secretary and his team will have to build bridges with the sector regardless of posturing for the next election. The economic realities of government debt and ramped up inflation will focus their minds fast. Rapid inflation of university and college costs will gather apace as everything from supplies, energy, and salaries spiral. Plans to cut or freeze university fees will be flattened by inflation. This will be exacerbated by the huge burden of servicing pension schemes in both sectors. The result will be a further degradation of provision and the first casualty will be support for the least advantaged students.  In turn, they may not be confident in Zahawi and his team really understanding their situation. The paradox that is Zahawi will come under further scrutiny.

Something will turn up.

The paradox lies in a minister who has experienced great wealth and advantage and a fall into poverty.  Yet he advocates less help than he enjoyed for those finding themselves in a similar predicament. His determination and resilience might be admired, but he must accept that the system of benefits, no university fees, and grants saved him at a time of greatest need. No doubt he appreciates the first of the  ‘Macawber Principles’ on spending and income. However, this implodes if the second does not happen. This is conveniently inscribed on the Charles Dickens 2012 anniversary £2 coin as ‘Something Will Turn Up’. Perhaps Zahawi no longer uses coins in his life. But for Zahawi something did ‘turn up’ and others will no doubt hope to experience the same. We trust his memory has not failed.

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