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By Ben Guerin
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The Nadhim Zahawi Interview: 'Teachers know the damage strikes will have on children'

Nadhim Zahawi said his party need to "sweep aside" Partygate distractions

9 min read

Nadhim Zahawi faces an uphill battle to get the education system back on track post-Covid. He talks about his approach to recovery – and how he hopes it will boost his party’s fortunes. Photography by Michael Garnett.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi is running late. It’s the morning after the night before, and both Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton have just been lost by the Conservatives. As time ticks by, I wonder whether Zahawi could be about to follow party chairman Oliver Dowden out of the Cabinet; as it turns out, he’s delayed driving to a school visit in his Stratford-on-Avon constituency.

Still, the problems facing his party are an obvious starting point for our discussion, and he’s prepared with many of the lines his Cabinet colleagues have already trotted out on the morning media round, about a “tough” result and the importance of “listening and responding”.

One of those areas referenced by Tory ministers giving the post-match analysis as an example of their ability to deliver is around the government’s school agenda, and Zahawi suggests concerns about schools was a factor in their twin defeats.

“I think two things are important. First, is our focus on delivery. So, on schools, we know that we’ve got to deliver the schools’ rebuilding programme – that was an issue in Tiverton – and second, making sure we deliver on skills, schools and families. That is my priority.”

Having been put in charge of Britain’s hugely successful vaccine programme in November 2020, Zahawi was promoted to Education Secretary in September 2021 after months of grim headlines about the handling of the brief by his predecessor, Gavin Williamson. Aside from his ability to fight fires and deliver a national project, the move seemed a natural one for Zahawi, who has frequently lauded the British education system as the reason for his transformation from an 11-year-old refugee who fled with his family from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime to become a successful entrepreneur, and then into Parliament.

“It is my passion. I talk about my backstory being an 11-year-old who arrived on these shores without a word of English and the opportunity that I’ve had through education,” he says.

“We held Cabinet in Stoke-on-Trent a few weeks ago. There are three constituencies there, and I think there is only one outstanding school. That can’t be right. Children in Stoke-on-Trent are not any less talented than children in Stratford-on-Avon or Kensington, they just don’t have that opportunity of having a great teacher in a great classroom in a great school, and I am determined to fix that.”

It perhaps says something about his stewardship over the last nine months that, having been a point of discomfort for the government during the pandemic, education is now being talked of as a potential vote winner for the party. But those future successes will rely on Zahawi delivering an unprecedented programme of recovery for children who endured major disruptions as a result of extended Covid shutdowns and an exam debacle that put their prospects at risk.

At the heart of the government’s billion-pound catch-up scheme is the National Tutoring Programme, aimed at providing targeted support for pupils most at risk of falling behind as a result of the pandemic. But the flagship programme has already hit several stumbling blocks, with one private provider removed due to failures, and almost 40 per cent of eligible schools are still failing to offer sessions.

Despite the figures falling significantly short of the government’s ambitions, and analysis by Labour suggesting that most secondary school students will have left school by the time the targets are met, Zahawi claims the programme has the potential to become a revolution in schooling that will expand access to tutoring from the privileged few to a much wider section of pupils.

“It’s a huge success story. I want it to become the norm in peacetime so that it’s not just a recovery post-Covid, but that as we move to a world where children have recovered, that tutoring is embedded. We have seen a good recovery in primary on reading and maths, but it’s been more challenging in secondary,” he says.

“It used to be the privilege of, or available to, those privileged few and the families who are more fortunate and wealthier, but I want to embed it so it’s available to every child, not just for the recovery period, but in the longer term in our education system.”

While that may be a noble ambition, his rhetoric is not yet matched by the delivery of the programme, and he admits the department has been forced to take a hands-on approach to persuading schools to get involved, even in these early stages.

“We got on the phone; we were ringing several schools a week. We’ve got 60 per cent plus who are already participating, we are anticipating that number going up, because from the 40 per cent that are not, about 88 per cent said they were planning to or about to, and so I’m confident we will do well in our targets to make sure that we get to those six million tutoring blocks by the end of this Parliament,” he adds.

“Those who aren’t yet involved are probably doing other things to deliver recovery and catch up, and I want to understand what that is as well. But actually, this is a very successful programme, and it’s a real success story.”

Practically, delivering such a programme relies on significant teaching resources, something which had been stretched even before the pandemic. With concern around teachers’ pay and conditions rising, Zahawi anticipates the question about possible strike action currently being mulled by education unions.

“The pandemic demonstrated to parents and to society how valuable teachers are in our education system and how difficult it is to deliver high-quality education. But we have to look at recruitment and retention, which is why I’m determined to lift the starting salary to £30,000,” he says.

“No teacher has said to me they want to strike, or they want to be out of schools, because they know the damage having children out of school did to their education – and of course we just talked about the recovery catch up.”

Zahawi insists strike action would be “unforgivable” in the current climate, in which children are struggling to catch up – an argument likely to further inflame unions.

“Suffice to say I know how hard teachers have worked and what they’ve delivered. And I will never, ever take that for granted. It’s important to remember that, but I don’t think any teacher wants to be out of the classroom and on a picket line.”

When we meet again a few days later in his office at the department, there are already plenty of mementos from his short time in office, from a framed finger painting welcoming him to a nursery to a custom-made director’s chair gifted to him by Pinewood Studios, and he beams as he tells me about the massive Shepperton studio the company has opened and the number of apprenticeships it will offer. The gifts encapsulate just how broad his policy portfolio is, as well as the span of issues he must deal with.

It leads to the question of why such significant departmental energy has been spent on tackling the issue of so-called “woke” teaching, a row that has been festering on American campuses for a decade, and recently washed up on these shores. But Zahawi is insistent that providing guidance on teaching social and political history is an important priority for his team.

Zahawi’s own full-throated defence of teaching both the benefits and the negatives of the British Empire would likely raise eyebrows if expressed by some other ministers, but his own background offers him an outside perspective, having seen the lasting effects first hand in his native Iraq.

“From all the evidence I’ve seen, on the whole teachers do an incredible job on teaching history. We’re doing a lot of work on the model history curriculum. It’s important to be proud of our history and to understand our history. We have to teach, for example, [that] the Empire had some incredible advances delivered around the world, but also you teach all aspects of what happened during that period. At the same time, I think it’s important to recognise the good that this country has done around the world.”

Again, Zahawi’s own background is fundamental to informing his policy approach, and he cites as an example Britain’s success in creating a functional civil service in Iraq and the disastrous impact on the country that followed its disassembly by Saddam Hussein.

“I think that shows it’s important to teach young minds about our history, but also demonstrate the good that we’ve done around the world.”

Clearly, Zahawi believes that success on education is key to his party’s fortunes and insists his aim by the next election is to be in a position where every Tory candidate can boast about their record on schooling. He adds: “The most valuable resource on earth is not precious metals or hydrocarbons. It is human capital, and that is what I will deliver, and if I do my job well then education will be front and centre on every election leaflet that we put out.”

Whether that claim is due to a genuine belief in the importance of education to voters or because he is setting up for a future leadership bid is harder to tease out. He is clearly more comfortable talking about his policy brief than his party’s electoral chances. When we turn to the topic of leadership, he tries to wrap things up, saying our interview is keeping him from some eager school children awaiting his visit. But in the final moments, I suggest that his analysis of a future election has a Boris Johnson-shaped hole. Could it be that, having risen quickly through the government ranks, he could be eyeing a further promotion to the top job?

“There are no vacancies,” he insists. “Boris Johnson is our Prime Minister, and my focus has to be on delivery. You have just been a demonstration to me about these distractions – we have to sweep them aside and just focus on delivery.”

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