Nadhim Zahawi’s baptism of fire as teaching unions demand school catch-up funding

·3-min read
Nadhim Zahawi’s appointment as Education Secretary was met with cautious optimism among senior union figures - Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Nadhim Zahawi’s appointment as Education Secretary was met with cautious optimism among senior union figures - Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Nadhim Zahawi is expected to face off with Britain’s teaching unions this autumn after they demanded new catch-up funding for schools less than 24 hours after he was appointed.

The new Education Secretary faces a tough start to the job as he grapples with the competing demands of school catch-up, the make-up of next summer’s exams and ongoing efforts to limit disruption caused by the pandemic.

Having won widespread plaudits as vaccines minister, his appointment on Wednesday was welcomed by school leaders, who had repeatedly come to blows with his predecessor Gavin Williamson.

The news was also met with cautious optimism among senior union figures, who described Mr Zahawi, a junior education minister under Theresa May, as “competent” and a “safe pair of hands”.

“The sense is at least it’s not Williamson,” one general secretary told The Telegraph.

However, with a three-year spending review looming, Mr Zahawi is already under pressure to secure a multi-billion pound package to help schools recover from 18 months of disruption.

While Boris Johnson has promised to deliver a second cash injection on top of £3 billion announced earlier this year, teaching unions have fiercely criticised his failure to come forward with the £15 billion package set out by Sir Kevan Collins, his former education tsar.

Mr Zahawi has also clashed with the teaching unions over the issue, having claimed in June that they had in fact rejected Sir Kevan’s biggest recommendation of extending the school day.

Defending the decision by Mr Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, to water down the package, he told ITV: “At the moment, the same people who are attacking us… are the teaching unions who resisted the idea of extending the school day in the first place.”

His comments drew a furious response from Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, who accused Mr Zahawi of peddling an “absolute lie”.

Unions make sure ‘Treasury will deliver’

Setting out fresh demands, Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, said: “The Prime Minister’s promise that no child would be left behind due to learning lost during the pandemic now needs to be delivered. Schools will need a radically more ambitious package of investment from the Treasury in order to get the job done.

“Convincing the Chancellor is the key. And whilst there will be many different conflicting priorities at the Treasury this autumn, the case must be made that funding educational recovery is an investment in this country’s future, not simply another drain on the nation’s finances.”

A second said: “We were told that £3 billion was only a start. We will be pressing him to make sure the Treasury delivers.”

In another potential flashpoint, another union leader suggested that the departure of Nick Gibb, a disciple of Michael Gove and one of Britain’s longest serving schools ministers, had left the door open to push for a significant overhaul of exams.

“We have an assessment system in this country which is obsessed with papers and with Nick Gibb going it creates the opportunity for those debates to open up now. I hope he will not adopt a bunker mentality against the profession.”

Jonathan Gullis, the Tory MP for Stoke-on-Trent North and a close ally of Mr Zahawi, told The Telegraph: “He has experience of the Department having previously been children’s minister. I hope that teaching unions will work in a more constructive manner with the new Secretary of State and Department, because it’s in their interest to do so for children to get the education they deserve.”

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