New secretary of state, new choices

What's in store for the new education secretary as he settles in at DfE?

What's in store for the new education secretary as he settles in at DfE?

17 Sep 2021, 10:31

Zahawi speech AAC


It was no surprise to see Gavin Williamson announce his own departure from office before any official statement from Number 10.

After all, after two years of own-goals, blunders and indecision, many have at times had to wonder how bad it would have to get before Boris Johnson would bring the axe down. 

Gavin Williamson appeared to be the bulletproof education secretary, so it is only fitting that he should be the one to fire the starting pistol on his own departure. 

As you read this, Nadhim Zahawi’s inbox will be filling up with invitations, well-wishes and offers of meetings and speaking opportunities.

But how much power and influence can a new education secretary wield this close to a spending review, where the battle lines have already been drawn? 

How much power and influence can a new education secretary wield this close to a spending review?

The prime minister will have to appoint someone who he can be confident will toe the line and front up some unpopular spending decisions. Yet, responses to the Stratford-upon-Avon MP’s appointment seem to have ignited a long-lost sense of hope and optimism. 

Of course, every new cabinet minister will want to make their own mark but a new boss at the DfE is more likely to gently swerve than slam on the brakes on any major policies or reforms.

This is particularly the case in further education at the moment with Number 10 itself heavily invested in keeping the DfE and other departments in check for the delivery of its priority reforms around “levelling up”, pandemic recovery and the post-Brexit economy. 

Protecting student choice

With fresh eyes can come fresh perspective.

A good first move for the new education secretary would be to do what his predecessor failed consistently to do – show that they are listening.

In our view, a good place to start would be to commit to protecting student choice at level 3. 

To accuse the Williamson administration of being completely deaf to the sector might be overly harsh, but it did take six months to U-turn on AEB business cases.

Then another 14 months between the AELP arguing for more traineeship providers and a procurement finally being launched. 

Education leaders, students and unions are unusually unified behind the Protect Student Choice campaign, launched in June this year, with a simple proposition; that T Levels and applied general qualifications can co-exist peacefully and the removal of funding for the latter would deprive huge numbers of young people with a viable level 3 option. 

Education leaders, students and unions are unusually unified behind the Protect Student Choice campaign

FE Week proudly supports the campaign. 

On level 3 qualifications, the landscape has shifted slightly from a completely binary A or T Level proposition for 16-year-olds to something that is definitely better, but by how much is not yet clear.

In the House of Commons last week, Gillian Keegan said that BTECs that “meet new quality criteria for funding approval” may be allowed, in response to a question from one of many concerned MPs. But we don’t know what that criteria will look like.

With young people making decisions about their futures now, this prolonged ambiguity is not good enough. 

It is possible to look too closely into these things but, in his first statement following his appointment, Zahawi said he wanted students to have access to “a brilliant education” and “the right qualifications”. 

On the one hand, he does not have to be as unilaterally wedded to T Level exclusivity as his predecessor. On the other, why reference qualifications at all unless you had a position? 

In the meantime, show the new administration that this is not an issue that will go away by signing the petition on protectstudentchoice.org.

Protect Student Choice https://www.protectstudentchoice.org


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