COVID school closures 'were a mistake', education secretary Nadhim Zahawi admits

Nadhim Zahawi pictured on Sunday. The education secretary branded COVID school closures 'a mistake'. (PA)
Nadhim Zahawi pictured on Sunday. The education secretary branded COVID school closures 'a mistake'. (PA)

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has said the closure of schools during the first and third coronavirus lockdowns “was a mistake”.

Zahawi, who wasn’t education secretary at the time of COVID-enforced school closures between March and May 2020 and January and March last year, admitted he wouldn’t have “had much choice” but added: “Never again.”

A paper on the impact of school closures on young people, submitted to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and published in July last year, found they caused “considerable harms to… health and wellbeing”.

Zahawi, asked to reflect on the decisions of his predecessor, Gavin Williamson, two years on from the onset of COVID restrictions, told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “I think the secretary of state then had very little choice.”

Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson in his office at the Department of Education in Westminster, London, following the announcement that A-level and GCSE results in England will now be based on teachers' assessments of their students, unless the grades produced by the controversial algorithm are higher. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)
Gavin Williamson pictured at the height of the A-level results scandal in August 2020. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)

Asked if he would have closed schools as education secretary at that time, he said: “The [public] inquiry will look at decisions made to get the country through the pandemic…”

Interrupted, and asked again if he would have closed schools, he said: “I don’t think I’d have had much choice. The truth is the closure of schools, when I reflect on that, was a mistake, and I’m on record as saying that.

“And I’ll do everything in my power never again to close schools - and the prime minister absolutely agrees with me - because not just the learning loss, the mental strain on young people, the anxiety.”

Read more: COVID infections seven times higher than government figures this month, ONS data shows

Williamson’s handling of school closures led to major disruption, most notably the A-level results fiasco in August 2020, when nearly 40% of results were downgraded as a result of exam regulator Ofqual’s algorithm aimed at standardising results following the cancellation of exams.

After the algorithm appeared to unfairly hinder high-achieving students from lower-performing schools, Willamson announced a U-turn in which grades were issued on teacher predictions.

Williamson was heavily criticised throughout his two-year spell as education secretary, before being sacked in a reshuffle in September last year. He was controversially awarded a knighthood this month.

Watch: Former education sec Gavin Williamson awarded a knighthood

Zahawi, however, defended this, saying his predecessor “deserves” the honour for his work on skills and new technical qualifications called T-levels, aimed at training workers in skills wanted by employers.

“Gavin Williamson’s work on skills, T-Levels, the lifelong learning entitlement will transform the fortunes of young people in our country who may not want to go to university. For that alone I think he deserves that knighthood.”