Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi gave evidence to MPs on the education select committee this morning on the new schools white paper, the SEND green paper and plans for skills.
Much of the session focussed on schools but Zahawi did take some questions on further education, including on local skills improvement plan developments and Institutes of Technology.
The education secretary also expressed strong concern over antisemitism allegations within the National Union of Students as the committee raised new accusations related to extremism advice.
Here is what we learned from today’s hearing…
1. ‘There is systemic antisemitism in the NUS’
Joint HE and FE minister Michelle Donelan last week warned that the government may suspend all engagement with the National Union of Students and report it to the Charity Commission in the wake of antisemitism allegations.
This came after it emerged that Shaima Dallali, who was elected as NUS president this month and will take up the role in July, had made anti-Semitic posts on social media ten years ago. And last month, The Jewish Chronicle wrote that current NUS president Larissa Kennedy told Jewish students they could segregate themselves at a conference concert in Liverpool to avoid hearing “anti-Israel” rapper Lowkey.
Asked for his thoughts on the issue today, Zahawi said: “I am deeply concerned about the NUS. It feels to me there is systemic antisemitism because this is second time they have elected a leader who has a history of antisemitic comments and statements. That does concern me.”
He added that he is “worried” the NUS is going through the “same sad predicament” as seen in the Labour Party under former leader Jeremy Corbyn “where you have antisemitism rife and leaders within it either participating or turning a blind eye to it”.
Zahawi said the NUS “needs to rebuild and regain the trust of Jewish students” which has “collapsed” and told MPs that “nothing is off the table” when it comes to the action DfE will take – including cutting all ties with the union.
Later in the session committee chair Robert Halfon said LBC Radio has this morning revealed a recording where students attending an NUS workshop run by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies were told not to report any individual they had concerns who had been watching extremist material to Prevent.
Zahawi responded: “This is deeply concerning. I would like to look at the detail of this. That is very serious.”
The NUS has ordered an independent investigation into the antisemitism allegations.
2. Ministers learning what ‘good’ LSIPs look like before launching next stage
The first batch of local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) were published last week by the Department for Education.
Eight areas piloted the plans, which are a key FE reform as outlined in the skills for jobs white paper and subsequent skills bill. The plans are supposed to identify local employers’ skills needs so that colleges and training providers can align the courses they offer accordingly.
Asked when more areas could sign up to develop LSIPs, Zahawi told MPs today: “We’re moving ahead and [skills minister] Alex Burghart is totally focused on making sure we learn what good looks like and then scale it across the country.
“I will write to you as to when you can expect the next stage to be online.”
3. Silence on whether more IoT bids will be welcomed anytime soon
The next nine colleges and universities to develop new Institutes of Technology were named in December.
This was the second wave of the IoT programme, which are described as “unique collaborations” between employers, colleges and universities that specialise in higher technical training in subjects such as advanced manufacturing, digital and cyber security, aerospace and healthcare. Twelve IoTs formed wave one.
Asked whether the DfE would welcome bids for more IoTs within this parliament, Zahawi failed to provide a straight answer.
He said: “The whole bringing together of HE, FE and business in IoTs and recognising them in our levelling up agenda in a process of rigour so that they become sustainable as institutions is going to be important.
“I am a huge advocate of IoTs but as secretary of state I can’t comment on any particular bid.”
4. All DfE staff told to return to the office ‘immediately‘
Halfon quoted statistics released yesterday which showed only 25 per cent of DfE staff are currently working in the office.
The chair questioned the fairness of teachers and staff in education settings being forced to “put their health at risk” to keep our children and young people learning while professionals in the DfE are allowed to stay working from home.
Zahawi admitted “we need to do better” and assured Halfon that those numbers will soon increase.
“The department, since I was appointed secretary of state in September, has delivered everything from the skills legislation to the schools white paper, to the SEND green paper and I would put on record my thanks for the incredible work my civil servants have done.
“I don’t disagree with you. The straight answer is we have got to do better. My instruction from my prime minister and cabinet is we have to go back to pre-covid working and office use. That is what we will do and you will see us improve.
“We will go back to pre-pandemic office use immediately.”