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"I was quite naughty when I was much younger": A Q&A With Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi | Alamy

9 min read

Two months into the job, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi is battling continuing outbreaks of Covid in schools, while figuring out how to help children catch up on lost learning following lockdown. He tells The House what it’s like to be a parent and a politician – and how schooling in his home town of Baghdad compared to education in the UK

Covid is currently ripping through schools – are you confident they will remain open? Is this a policy of herd immunity in kids? 

Since starting in the role, I’ve always been clear about how important it is that kids are in the classroom – not just for their learning but also their wellbeing. It might come as a surprise, but the evidence shows they are also happier in school. 

We can keep schools open because of the protective measures in place. Regular testing is also such a powerful tool, along with the successful vaccine programme which is all helping to manage the risk of transmission and reduce disruption to education. 

 Is £300 per pupil in England over three years enough to make up for Covid lag in education?

I know that the pandemic hit young people hard, which is why it is so important that they are back in school. To help children catch up we’ve rolled out a nationwide tutoring programme, opening up the benefits of tutoring to many more pupils, making sure support goes to those pupils who need it most. 

We are also delivering world-class teaching and extending the day for college pupils who are nearing the end of their education and need that final boost, backed by nearly £5bn. 

Do you regret that relations between the teaching unions and the government are so poor? If so, what can the government do about it? 

You know, we share similar goals, whatever people may think. My department and I will continue to work closely with the teaching unions. It is important that I hear their views, alongside other sector organisations when making decisions about the education system.

All my conversations with them have been focused on our shared goal of helping and supporting teachers to deliver the very best education for our children. 

Your children were teenagers when you first became an MP: how was it balancing the job and late night votes with things like parents’ evening?  

My youngest child, Mia, is seven-years-old now so it’s still the case that I have to do my best to balance work and family life. I enjoy taking my daughter to school when I can but I recognise a huge number of working parents have to make these decisions and strike these balances. For me, parenthood goes beyond the interactions between parent and child. It’s also about being a role model and setting an example. I hope that for all three of my children I’ve been able to set a positive example by working hard and trying to make a difference. 

The truth is that I was quite naughty when I was much younger and that’s where the most inspirational teachers set me on the right track.

We’re doing more than any other government to help people balance those priorities through things like shared parental leave, promoting increased flexibility in working and offering 30 hours a week of free childcare to working families.

What were you like at school? Did you have any favourite subjects? Can you remember an inspiring teacher of your own? 

The truth is that I was quite naughty when I was much younger and that’s where the most inspirational teachers set me on the right track. The first was Miss M’barack who was my headteacher in Baghdad. She wouldn’t hesitate to put me in detention when I misbehaved but she didn’t just leave me there. She sat me down and challenged me to focus the energy I was putting into misbehaving and use it to do something with my life.

It worked – but obviously not 100 per cent – because when I came to the UK I had an inspirational teacher, Bob Hiller, who taught me maths. When I was once misbehaving, he told me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t stop wasting all my energy on being a bit of a rebel, then I wasn’t going to amount to much. This made a huge impression on me. 

Once I got the message that I needed to apply myself, I’d say it was science and engineering that really captured my interest. I went on to read Chemical Engineering at university and still find myself fascinated by the science and mechanics behind how things work. 

How did school in Iraq compare to your own education and that of your children in the UK?

They were very different experiences, both in the sense of the culture but also because in Iraq I was a native speaker in my home country, and had all the advantages that come with that. When I arrived in the UK in 1978, aged 11, I was an outsider. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t understand the customs, and I didn’t know anyone. 

It means it’s quite hard to make meaningful comparisons between the two experiences – but what I can say is that it gave me a true appreciation of why education is so important and just how amazing this country and its education system is. For me education was the thing that made a difference. That’s why I’m so proud to be Education Secretary now – because I want to make sure that all children have that same chance to realise their potential. 

I don’t think the education system should be pushing any sort of agenda on children. I think the vast majority of schools and teachers agree with that. 

Some of your Conservative colleagues have said that schools are pushing “wokeness” on children – do you agree? Should children be taught about topics such as Black Lives Matter?

I think there are two issues at stake here. Firstly, I don’t think the education system should be pushing any sort of agenda on children. I think the vast majority of schools and teachers agree with that. 

The second element is that schools should be teaching children to make sense of the world in an impartial way. Teachers are fantastic when it comes to knowing how to engage their pupils with all sorts of issues.

This is fundamentally different to telling pupils what to think, though. Good teaching – the sort of teaching that is ubiquitous in our education system – gives young people the facts and teaches them the critical thinking needed to form their own opinions on things. 

We recently carried an op-ed from an APPG that campaigns to get Black writers on the curriculum – are there enough now? Enough women? 

Diversity and representation are hugely important issues, and you will never find me sitting idly by saying we’ve “done enough”.

What I do strongly believe though is it’s right that the government provides space for schools and exam boards to do this in a nuanced way that works for pupils and the specific subjects in question.

The English curriculum is a great example of how schools can tailor content to their students, as teachers have the flexibility to choose the books they want to teach – and I applaud teachers for responding with enthusiasm to the calls from their students to see a greater diversity in the authors and works discussed in class. 

Do you the share concerns of parents who feel too many schools teach to pass the exam? Has the focus on exam success detracted from teaching? 

One of the aims of our national curriculum is for teaching to be broad and balanced, and I know schools have taken this principle very seriously.

GCSEs and A Levels have been reformed and strengthened over the years, reflecting the concerns of employers, universities and colleges, creating qualifications that place young people on the right track for further study or the working world. Exams do remain the fairest and best form of assessment. 

What are you going to do about grade inflation?

Teachers across the country did a fantastic job in assessing students last year, and they were absolutely the best people to provide grades given the challenging context. 

The grade increases we saw as a result of teacher-assessed grades were not surprising, because teachers were given flexibility to draw from different sources of evidence – which means students had a number of opportunities to show what they knew and could do.

The plan for 2022 is that it will be a transition year and will aim for a mid-point between 2021 with plans to return to pre-pandemic grades in 2023.

This is to not only recognise the disruption experienced by students taking exams next year, but also provide a safety net for students who might otherwise miss out on a higher grade. 

Do you agree that vocational studies remain the “Cinderella subjects,” undervalued by society? What are you going to do about it? 

The Prime Minister and I both agree that what we need is skills, skills, skills. We are working hard to make sure vocational and technical options are high-quality and regarded as just as prestigious and just as rewarding as academic routes. I want T Levels to be just as famous as A levels. 

There is still more to do. That’s why we’ve put tackling skills gaps at the heart of our reforms so employers have access to the talent they need to thrive and more people have the opportunity to get the skills they need to get good jobs. 

We’re also due to launch two new campaigns in the New Year to help people access the skills they need to progress at different stages in life. 

This will include raising awareness about all the options available including T Levels, apprenticeships and traineeships, but also to boost understanding of the skills offers available to adults, whether they are looking to change career, want to find a more rewarding job or are just starting out. 

Before the pandemic, 18 per cent of children left school without five good GCSEs – are low achievers being ignored in favour of pushing higher achievers towards university?

We are focused on “levelling up” opportunity across the country so that every young person can progress and secure a rewarding, well-paid job, whether that is going to university or opting for a vocational or technical route such as an apprenticeship.

There have never been so many high-quality options for young people to consider after the age of 16, to help them reach their goals – in addition to supporting people to study, upskill or retrain flexibly throughout their lives. 

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