Nadhim Zahawi MP is the Secretary of State for Education.
It is a little over six months since Boris Johnson gave me the honour the Secretary of State for Education: the best job in Westminster.
Having made two significant announcements this week, now felt like a good time to take stock and share with ConHome readers the journey that has brought us to this point, both for me and for generations of heroic, reforming Conservative ministers that have held this office before me, and on whose legacy this Government is building.
For me personally, this job begins my third stint in the Department. First, David Cameron made me the apprenticeship tsar – there were lots of tsars in those days – and then Theresa May appointed me as her Children and Families Minister. I have drawn on these experiences in my role, but I have benefited enormously, too, from generations of Conservative educational reformers.
As far back as the Second World War, Rab Butler was bringing in universal secondary education and incorporating church-led schools into the system. These church schools are now leading the charge to help complete the journey to see all schools in a strong family of schools, and I’m grateful to the Church of England’s support for this key concept of interdependence in providing the best outcomes for our children.
When I walk past the wall of photographs of my predecessors as Education Secretary each morning, a certain Margaret Thatcher is among the faces who peer out. It is an honour to follow in her footsteps.
When I first experienced the British school system as an 11-year-old immigrant without a word of English, my mum would remind me that a grocer’s daughter from Grantham had just been elected as Prime Minister and that nothing was impossible in this country. Our reforms will make the limitless ambition Thatcher had for Britain a reality for more and more young people.
Our current educational system still bears many of the hallmarks of the work done by one of her key supporters, that brilliant conservative thinker, Keith Joseph. High-quality qualifications (like the GCSEs he introduced), support for world-leading university research and a focus on bringing parents along on their children’s journey to knowledge have been huge inspirations for me and my brilliant team of ministers at the department.
Since we Conservatives returned to Government in 2010, a series of reforms, spearheaded by Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, have led to an explosion of improvements across the school system and proved one of the crowning achievements of the Coalition. These reforms, introducing free schools, and driving academisation, or autonomy from local government to you and me, has been transformational.
The facts speak for themselves: 86 per cent of schools are now rated as Good or Outstanding, versus 68 per cent in 2010. English primary school students are now better at reading than they have ever been, and the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers narrowed by 13 per cent at age 11 and nine per cent at age 16, between 2011 and 2019, before the pandemic struck. We Conservatives should be proud.
And Gavin Williamson, through a laser-like focus on the skills agenda, on T-levels and on quality apprenticeships, helped rebuild that parity of esteem and are turning us once again into a nation that makes and builds things.
The Prime Minister’s commitment to delivering for pupils and parents is total, and we are working in lockstep to deliver the reform that is needed for the next generation to thrive.
And if you had told me back when I was the apprenticeship tsar that we would have a Prime Minister who would put the money behind a transformative policy such as the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, enabling people to retrain and up-skill throughout their life, I would have bitten your hand off!
So, you can see: taking up a mantle of this pedigree is an inspiring, and daunting, one. Truly, I am standing on the shoulder of giants.
My mission as Education Secretary is a simple one: to give every child the outstanding education that so many children are now receiving. It really is about levelling up the standards and quality of our Multi-Academy Trust system right across England. Put simply, excellence should be the expectation, not the exception.
That’s what this week’s announcements – our SEND Review and Schools White Paper – are about. They are about delivering on our promise to level up so that education standards in Blackpool and Bolton, are just as high as they are in Bromley and Barking.
At the moment, only around two thirds of children leave primary school with the expected standard in reading, writing and maths. Our ambition is to hit at least 90 per cent before the decade is out. I have also made a pledge, from me and this Government, to parents across the country; wherever a child falls behind in English or maths, their school will intervene swiftly to deliver the targeted support that is needed to get that child back on track.
And the SEND Review seeks to build a more inclusive system for the most vulnerable children in our country and eliminate the postcode lottery that still exists in some parts of the country, so that no young person in one street, one town, one city – no matter their need – gets a lower standard of education to their friend in the next.
Skills, schools and families are my focus. Building on our announcements this week on skills and schools, tomorrow you will see plans that this Government is delivering support families across this country and help them access crucial services when they need it most.
Family is the most important thing in the world to all of us; we all want to look after the next generation, and to live up to the potential and promise of our predecessors. I have huge shoes to fill, but our children deserve the very best, and our Conservative predecessors have made possible to achieve the best education system in the world.
It is time to finish the job and unleash the unlimited potential of this country.